Ethical Sampling

Monday, May 19, 2014 at 2:01 pm

Along with the release of my album Sampled Library, I wanted to write up some thoughts about sampling I’ve had kicking around my head.

The sampler is a relatively recent invention: showed up in the late 60s, affordable by plonkers in the 80s, and gutted by legal nonsense the 90s. In between the last two phases, though, a lot of interesting things went down. Art of Noise is the first thing that falls out of my head. I read Tape Op’s interviewage of Trevor Horn, and there’s this one bit:

“That [label] was ZTT and what became the Art of Noise was born out of us just looning around. We used to say, “Hoist the Jolly Roger! We’re coming aboard!” We would sample bits of tracks and throw stuff together. “Beat Box,” the beginnings of “Moments in Love” and bizarre things like “The Army Now,” were just me screwing around. Paul Morley came up with the name – the Art of Noise – and the name inspired us. He even came up with [song] titles like “Moments in Love;” and we went on to write the song.”

That’s the thing about sampling: Unless you make all the noise going into the sampler yourself, it is stealing, in a sense — even if you pay for it. I think that’s why there’s so much confusion: people have the illusion that if they pay for a loop library, it’s not stealing… but to me, it still is, sort of. The word “stealing” itself is a distraction. The point is this: You’re still using someone else’s bit rather than making it yourself. Taken to a ridiculous extreme, you could even argue that sampling bird songs counts as stealing from nature — or whoever owns the plot of land you recorded it on! So, what to call it? “Borrowing” doesn’t feel right… appropriating? Liberating? Nah… just “sampling,” thanks. It is what it is: an inherently grey area.

Sampling is also the stereotypical double-edged sword of advancing technology, as it augments laziness as much as it does greatness. I can grab a library drum loop and spend ten minutes massaging it into what I want, versus an hour picking out individual samples and programming up a loop… or a day, if I wanted to make my own samples. At that point, I’d sooner use a drum synth  — but that’s synthesis, not sampling! Even there, I didn’t program Sonic Charge microTonic myself.

In terms of getting the best results, it’s always better to make your own stuff. It’s always deeper and more personal. If you feel you can pull it off, you definitely should. However, life demands the occasional compromise, and honestly — it’s not easy to make good, chunky-sounding drum hits from scratch. I think we can all agree that sampling individual drum hits + sequencing them via MIDI is not terribly abusive, as use of the sampler goes.

Sampling outright loops is a lot more of a tossup. Using a stock library break is definitely a lame-o thing to do, but hey — sometimes it fits; why argue? It’s a fine line, though, as building up tracks COMPLETELY out of stock loops is pretty much putting your creativity on autopilot. Contrast this with, say, N.W.A., where loops are pointedly-chosen, to the point of becoming (hilarious) social commentary. Or, Squarepusher using an unedited, unchopped amen break somewhere on his album Hello Everything… In short, it is a damn slippery thing to nail down, where even the lamest things can work in the proper context.

I suppose I feel that sampling is more of a reflexive dialogue between thousands of minds, than it is anything governed by overarching physical laws. Detroit techno gives me a very strong visual of a massive, abstract 3D structure, with swarms of people crawling all over it — welding bits on, cutting tunnels, altering things, rearranging that. Everyone sampled each other to the point where it started to become a strange collective goulash. Community property.

That’s why I think that Trevor Horn quote nails it: They had no delusions about the nature of the sampler, but at the same time, they were just having fun. They were doing it for the joy of doing it. As long as you have that sort of attitude clear in your mind, it’s generally obvious what constitutes ethical sampling… versus lazy sampling.

Sampled Library

Saturday, May 17, 2014 at 11:16 pm

New Nevenen album!

Nevenen - Sampled Library

Nevenen – Sampled Library

How To Give Yourself A Twitterenema

Friday, May 16, 2014 at 12:17 am

brominated

Watching unwieldy conglomerates on Twitter is like witnessing an elephant being harassed by a swarm of flies. Twitter belongs to the masses, and when Grocter-OmniLever, Inc. serves up one of its marketing droids to be sacrificed on the altar of consumer discontent, it’s satisfyingly messy — but also, more of a distraction than a solution. Case in point: Due to consumer harassment on Twitter, some chemical — Brominated Vegetable Oil (BVO) — will no longer be used by the soda overlords. I have no opinion on this, as I do not drink soda.

Twitter is also about the now — breaking news, current events, the rumor mill, the water cooler… So, really, I see no point in having my old tweets linger around. Perhaps there’s an epic moment or two worth saving, but, by and large, my tweets are just me blathering whatever rolls off my frontal lobes. Twitter doesn’t even make it easy to revisit history — unless I’ve missed something, you have to scroll, scroll, scroll, scroll, infinitely. Or get lucky with a search keyword.

Twitter also provides no bulk-deletion interface. Why? Because they want that data in their server. Though it provides little-to-no value to you, it’s Twitter’s retirement fund: It is food for targeted ads. I might shrug it off if they actually allowed me a way to search in a targeted manner — instead they redirect me to the timelime; to the now.

They do, however, permit you to download an archive:

tweets

This was not without effort: I clicked the button to request the archive, and it told me it was too busy. After two days  of it being “busy,” it finally deigned to give me my data. Their offline browsing design is nice. I had some fun reading old tweets, then I started deleting them. One by one.

After a few hundred tweets, ennui set in. I don’t mean all at once, either: I’d do batches here and there. It was actually sort of fun, at first, to re-read what was on my mind a few years ago… but, like Twitter, I prefer the now. I grew irritated at the wasted time, and decided to automate it.

curl

This is not really a problem I cared to solve in an elegant matter; I simply wanted to get ‘er done. Rather than trifle with the API and auth keys, I just flicked up firebug, clicked “persist,” and then deleted a tweet. This captured the precise little bee waltz of ones and zereos that resulted in a deleted tweet. Firebug will helpfully spit it out as a cURL string: A command line argument that will, essentially, perform the same little bee waltz.

curlbee

Most of this data is very temporary — as soon as you click “logout,” you’ll get a totally different _twitter_sess — or whatever. Fortunately, I didn’t need it for very long…. just long enough to fire up Cygwin and bash out a rather underendowed shell script. I replaced the number of the target tweet with an argument variable.

onetweet

I tested it out, and indeed: I could now delete tweets from the command line — until the session expired. As Twitter’s archive provides Comma-Separated Value, I did as you do with CSV and POSIX and BASH:

bulkdel

This is an absolutely terrible shell script, and I do not recommend it at all. Nonetheless, by the time I finished cleaning my bathroom, I’d lost over 1,000 tweets — now that’s multitasking!

Bugs:

  • Breaks as soon as you log out.
  • Does not unretweet retweets.
  • Fails on tweets with line breaks.
  • Probably in violation of Twitter’s Terms of Service.

 

Bottom line: It doesn’t have to be perfect or permanent, it just has to get the job done.

 

Spring Reverb with Synthacon Filter

Wednesday, May 14, 2014 at 1:46 am

Spring Reverb with Synthacon Filter

Spring Reverb with Synthacon Filter, in its natural habitat.

Saying reverb is important to music production is like saying that Jesus is “kind of popular”: the level of passion can’t be stated plainly; it demands some sort of humorous understatement. So, as I’ve just finished a tune-up on my custom spring reverb, I figured I’d write about it!

I previously covered Impulse Reverb (a.k.a. “convolution reverb”), which represents the bleeding edge of reverb technology. Spring reverb is completely the opposite of that: Before DSPs, engineers had to rely on physical or analog processes to get the effect, and the most popular techniques break down into three major categories:

Hall / Chamber Reverb – The simplest way to apply reverb to a recording is to skip the simulation and use the real thing: Speaker at one end of a room, microphone at the other. Alternatively, if it’s acoustic music, just make the recording there in the first place! Indeed, this is where the effect started: You’re not always able to record in a fantastic-sounding cathedral, but you can build a giant, echoing room anywhere. Studios like Abbey Road had specially designed rooms in the basement specifically for this purpose. While this lets you get a good reverb sound without going on-location, it’s still not very portable — and it takes a lot of time and money to even pull off in the first place, unless you happen to live in a building with an echoing stairwell. However, it still marks the line where we crossed over from a recording location to a repeatable FX unit: bottled lightning. Having captured the effect, engineers then sought to scale it down, and make it more controllable, via crafting analog models of the physical process.

Plate Reverb – A large slab of metal is buzzed and vibrated with the source signal. Vibrations reflect and gradually taper off; just add a pickup and you have what sounds like natural reverb. If this sounds confusing, just think of a gong. Unfortunately, to get a good sound, you still need a large chunk of metal set up in a precision manner: Beatles-era plate reverb units easily clock in at around 600lbs. The only control was a dampener.

Spring Reverb – Same idea as plate reverb, except smaller and cheaper: flappy springs, instead of a huge slab of metal, allow the effect unit to be scaled down to the size of a pencil box. While not considered adequate for studio usage (They don’t sound nearly as nice as plate reverbs!), spring reverbs were well-suited to being built into guitar amps and organs. You’ll still see spring reverb tanks in guitar amps today, even though many have gone digital — along with all the organs. Spring reverb has the sonic richness of a physical, analog process… along with the corresponding headaches and hassles. It is very subject to noise and interference. There are no controls on the effect unit itself: Fixed decay, fixed everything.  The spring responds as the manufacturer designed it.

Since you have no control over the response of the spring reverb tank, you are forced to rely on the supporting circuity: EQ can alter the sound before it goes in, and again after it comes out. Feedback loops can be used to artificially enhance the decay. Compression/expansion can be used to warp the spring’s response curve. Starting out, however, I didn’t know any of this!

My trip began in 2006 or so, when I purchased a Belton reverb tank off eBay for $10, planning to simply plug it into my mixer. Very quickly, I discovered that this didn’t really work. It was hard to get much sound out of it, and what sound I did get wasn’t very good: It was totally swamped in buzz, noise, and AC hum. Besides that, it sounded incredibly muddy. Turns out, you need a dedicated circuit to drive the reverb — you can’t just use a bog-standard preamp. So, it sat on the shelf for a year or three, until I learned more about electronics.

Eventually, I found Rod Elliott’s writings on spring reverb, which I highly recommended. With an LM386 and a few components, I immediately got better results (fig 2 on the linked page). After spending some time with this setup, I began to discover previously-hidden sweet spots: It responded differently to some frequencies than others, and by boosting or cutting those frequencies (along with the overall gain) I actually began to get significant variety out of what had hitherto been a one-trick pony.

After EQ and a proper driver got me using the thing on a regular basis, I discovered something else: It’s even more fun when you throw in a proper filter — a modular-grade, multi-mode VCF: in particular, bandpass and highpass allow you to bring out some of the more subtle characteristics. Lowpass is merely useful to cut off excess frequencies. In all cases, resonance gives some tone control, and being able to voltage control the cutoff means being able to automate the wackiness. During this time I used the VCF on my PAiA Fatman, which I’d previously modified for audio input and additional filter modes. I typically used it as an aux send, and brought it back in on a dedicated channel rather than the aux return: This allowed me to send it back out to the aux send again, feeding the effect back on itself. You can hear the end result in my track Electric Taste. It reminds me of a red-hot filament…

Eventually, I got tired of having my Fatman’s filter monopolized as a personal assistant to the spring reverb, and decided to rebuild the driver with a dedicated filter. I wound up settling on Ken Stone’s Synthacon VCF due to its weird an unique nature. Most filters have a single audio input, and separate outputs for the various modes: HP, LP, BP, whatever. However, he Synthacon VCF has inputs for each mode instead, and a single unified output. Feeding sounds into multiple jacks at once results in some weird goulash. To me, this sounded like the perfect thing to go along with all the feedback: have this quirky filter in the loop, and allow me to further sculpt the tone.

Unfortunately, I had problems getting the filter to work right: Fresh off the success of a few projects, I got overly-ambitious. Since the driver still worked fine, I decided to put it back in the studio and just leave the filter set on “bypass” until I cleared out my project backlog (Note: If you do this sort of thing to yourself as well, the best advice I could ever give is: don’t start new projects until you finish existing ones! ). Here’s a video I shot while working on it. As the video date indicates, it’s been almost two years since I last had it out of the case. Last weekend, however, I finally got around to fixing the filter:

Driver and filter, original circuit.

Driver and filter, original circuit, with newly-added power connector.

Driver/Filter bottom view

Bottom of the board. I took this photo for my own reference — digital cameras are a lifesaver for this stuff!

Reverb driver and Synthacon VCF, all boxed up.

Reverb driver and Synthacon VCF, all boxed up. I used the case from a busted Delta 1010 audio interface. 🙂

Reverb and filter, back in the studio, with tank

Reverb and filter, back in the studio, with tank, hooked up and ready to go!

Here’s a video of me testing it out:

The three switches enable/disable HP/BP/LP, and the fourth switch optionally bypasses the filter entirely. Then there’s input gain and tone control (for the driver), and cutoff/res (for the filter). It’s a very simple configuration, and I have a lot more planned for it. There are a few things I want to do as soon as possible:

– Needs an output preamp — The input preamp (driver) is really what matters, but the output still requires me to ramp the gain on the mixer’s preamp, which can be a bit noisy.
– Internal feedback loop — I want to be able to feed the thing back on itself without relying on a mixer.
– Need level controls for the three filter modes in addition to the on/off switches.
– CV input jack for filter cutoff
– Power LED

And then there are some blue-sky ideas, which I’m not sure when I’ll get to:

– Dedicated EQ
– LFO for filter cutoff
– Envelope follower circuit to control filter cutoff
– Alternate driver circuit (the LM386 is a bit rough)

For the moment, though, I’m stoked to simply have it working as I intended it to back in 2011, and I’m going to allow myself the luxury of enjoying it a bit before I tear it up again. Stay tuned for Pt. II! 🙂

Meanwile, have a few useful links…

Not As Advertised

Sunday, April 27, 2014 at 4:56 am

As sure as rain will fall, stated tech specs invariably inflate what the product can do. Various features are fonted and gaslit with a knowing wink, then vaporize as soon as the rubber hits the road — Oh. That’s not what I thought that meant. Other woes belched from the from the technology horn include, but are not limited to: refusing to cooperate with rival products, software updates borking all your fings, shakedown attempts by way of subscription fees and app stores, and having to perform odd rites and rituals just to get the sucka to work in the first place. This feels like more of a problem than it used to be. Maybe it’s just that flying higher means falling further when the apps come home to store…

I have this charming little idea: I want to sit in bed, jam on my Yamaha DX-200, and record the noises to my LG Nexus 4, which will then tunnel it to soundcloud, after I switch off the lights and go back to sleep. I want to do this partly for the fun of it, but I also want to do it so I can use it as a notepad. Guitarists have their Memorex tape recorders, but it’s a bit more complicated when you muse electronically.

For a brief moment, I thought I had it. I bought a series of overpriced dongles off Amazon, and wired it up for a test toast — and it worked! However, tonight — it did not. I set it all up, finally, only to have it fail to record. All I could get was something that sound like a front-row seat on airplane tarmac. The music player app kept launching while I was fussing with it — was that jamming the soundcloud? Had the dongle I just paid $20 for broken already? Had a software update changed my shit? I didn’t know. I was more than a little pissed off.

My mini-disc recorder would have just done the job without any problem… but the moment was already ruined, so I came here instead, to stow away the DX-200 and write this post. It’s ironic to mention the mini-disc here: the format could have done a lot better if Sony’s software weren’t locked-down and crappy. Since it was crap, no one used it — they just bounce the audio. Wasted potential. I am starting to feel the same way about the latest generation of tech bits: in this soup of white light and app stores, I feel a bit unmoored. This could be so wonderful, it really could — if it worked. If my DX-200/Nexus4 rig worked, I could literally jam anywhere, thanks to batteries and cellular networks. In practice, however, it requires lots of fussy nonsense that regularly breaks for no reason, and I’m still better off with the mini-disc. The DX-200 goes back on the shelf; I’m already up too late.

Casio SK-1: Overhaul, Part Two

Saturday, January 11, 2014 at 9:20 pm

Casio SK-1 Gate Input and Individual Outs

Casio SK-1 Gate Input and Individual Outs

 

With all the groundwork laid out the previous time, ’twas time to actually start making things more useful! I decided to add a gate input, so I could sync the SK-1 to my other gear… and to build a breakout box for the port I added last time… click on for more.

(more…)

Shift Key Foot Pedal

Monday, November 18, 2013 at 1:31 am

Shift Key via Footswitch

Recently, I moved. Re-building my setup in a differently-shaped space has caused me to evaluate things much more consciously. I found myself coming back to an idea I’d had a year or two ago: Foot pedals for the computer. My wrists go carpal mashing the shift key while coding or playing games, while my feet are doing absolutely nothing. Why not?

On looking at what the market offered, all I found was bad news: There were indeed USB pedals, but every one of them got terrible reviews. Not because of the pedal, but because of the drivers & software — many of them wouldn’t even let you hold a key down. Like, you’d hold down the pedal, and it would just press the key briefly instead of keeping it held down — useless! No one crouches for 0.3 seconds in counterstrike and lives. So, I shelved the idea and forgot about it, until now.

While sorting out my electronics junk after the move, I found my bin of old computer keyboards. It hit me: Why not just chop up one of these, and add a jack for a footswitch? I mean, it’s a keyboard already. There will be no driver issues; all I have to do is run a wire to the key, right?

Wellll… not quite. It was a bit more complicated than that.

More below the cut.

(more…)

Casio SK-1: Overhaul, Part One

Tuesday, October 8, 2013 at 2:42 am

Casio SK-1 (artist's rendering)

This is part of a series of posts about the Casio SK-1. For more, see the introduction page.

 

Stage One: I Accidentally A Pattern (Intro)

I’d had a long day at the office. I wanted to mess about with some music stuff, but I figured I was too wiped for any sort of serious effort. I decided to dig out my Casio SK-1, which I hadn’t used in ages. After a bit of messing around, I decided to record myself playing it, then went to sleep.

The next evening, I found myself in the same situation: tired, but still wanting to do some musics. I played the SK-1 for a bit, then recorded myself playing it. Again.

When the situation repeated itself the third evening, I realized I’d “accidentally a pattern,” and decided to keep going. I created a soundcloud for it. I made up a set of rules for the project to keep it on track: Sample whatever beforehand, do a bit of noodling to warm up, then record it, maybe with some aux effects. No more than one a day. Try to do it daily; but OK to skip it.

After about two weeks, I’d been all over the thing — gotten around to all the more obscure functions, like additive synthesis and the built-in sequencer (“memory”). My SK-1 was circuit bent, but only ever so slightly: three switches; that’s it. Worse, it was grungy. Dust in all the crevices, someone (possibly me) spilled beer on it a few years ago, and so on. None of these things had bothered me before, but now that I was doing A Thing, I increasingly felt need to do the SK-1 justice. I wanted to make it owsum. So, I put SK-1 Jams on hiatus, and promptly got in over my head modding the thing.

More below the cut.

(more…)

Casio SK-1: Introduction

Monday, October 7, 2013 at 9:49 pm

Casio SK-1

The Casio SK-1 is a sampler. Press a button and yell into its mic, and it will staidly BLARP, indicating it has stored your exclamation. Either that, or it will crash and not BLARP. If it doesn’t crash, you can then play your voice on the keyboard: it shifts the pitch to match the notes. Have your dog bark into it, and do your own rendition of “dogs sing jingle bells.” Dig into it further, though, and there’s actually a lot more: envelope settings, additive synthesis, a primitive sequencer, and some basic FX. In short, it’s pretty powerful for something you’ll find buried in thrift shops across the country. What’s more, the thing is a riot: no piece of musical equipment I own is better suited to entertaining a bunch of drunk people at a party. The ability to turn anyone’s voice into Alvin the chipmunk is inherently hilarious, and once people get the basic concept, the thing becomes a party game: people want to take turns trying it with their voice. Some people make funny noises, some people say dirty words, others sing a note, and still others simply yell “HELLO” at it. Eventually, someone gets impatient and starts yelling over someone else, and the resulting jumble of noise is even more hilarious.

Yet, the SK-1’s general popularity derives from something else entirely: It’s a goldmine for circuit bending. Get into circuit bending, and you’ll immediately hear about the SK-1 — and all the other Casio SK models. The SK-1, in particular, is easy to bend, and the results are amazing. The SK-1 is not terribly rare, or hard to find. They’re amazingly resilient, despite their age. If the Speaks & [VERB]s are the de facto ambassadors of circuit bending, the SK’s are cultural attachés, quietly laying the groundwork for circuit bending’s popularity as a whole.  People typically bend a Speak first: it’s quick and easy. Move on to an SK-1, though, and you’ll tumble down the rabbit hole in short order. In a sense, while the Speaks are very straightforward, they’re also shallow. The SK-1, on the other hand, is crazy deep. With oodles of info on the internet (including the service manuals!), it pushes a lot of people to move beyond merely shorting contacts together at random. After trying bend points for a bit, you notice the best bend points are in neat columns. When you figure this out, it’s tantalizing. It dawns you that you might actually be able to comprehend how this thing works on a deeper level; do things deliberately, not accidentally. The Internet will promptly serve up as much info as you can stand. It’s addicting.

Recently, I overhauled my SK-1, and I felt like writing it up. Once I do, I’ll update this post with links… figure I’ll also re-link all the SK-1 sites, too, rather than force people to dig through the overhaul posts for hyperlinks.

I do diary-style jams on my SK-1; you can find them here: https://soundcloud.com/sk-1-jams/

Free Agent

Tuesday, February 21, 2012 at 10:05 pm

I wake up every day, and there is stuff to do; things to make. I use tools to make things and do stuff, because they accelerate and expand what I am individually capable of. One such tool is the computer. I get an amazing amount of stuff done on computers, and I’ve come to rely quite heavily on them to make the gears in my life turn. Work, family, my personal projects, ordering from Domino’s Pizza — all of these things are gradually getting vacuumed up into the Internet. Ziggurats like Microsoft, Google, Facebook, and Apple squabble to own the master key — your whole life, as run by Apple. Or Google. Or Microsoft. I’m just an individual trying get stuff done, and I’ll use whatever works. It’s extremely irritating to be treated as a “thing” that a bunch of rich kids are fighting over. I got involved with these companies in the first place because they allowed me to get a lot of stuff done, but once we became enmeshed they put a gun to my head: keep feeding us your cash, or we’ll shut your whole life off. No work will get done, no books will be written, no e-mails will be sent to mom, no funny cat videos will be liked…. unless you become a piece of intellectual property owned by a bunch of squabbling billionaires. I think a guy named George Orwell wrote something about this, but he missed the capitalism angle.

As my disgust for all these companies skyrockets, I seek alternatives. I’ve become exponentially aggressive in taking ownership of my digital life, because I fear if I wait much longer, I’ll never be able to escape. Facebook technicians will break into my house and forcibly graft a device to me that announces whenever I move my bowels (and publicly shame me if my movements are not regular enough). I could become some crazy old coot and go live in the woods for the rest of my life, but I quite like everyday society. I’d like to participate in all the wonders life has to offer without being “branded” like a cow. Are you a Google Person or a Microsoft Person or a Facebook Person or a Samsung Person or a Verizon Person? It’s as gross as factory farming, except we’re the cattle.

I decided to start disentangling my life from G-Mail, once Google announced their grand unification scheme. I can’t axe it completely, unless I want to delete all my youtube videos, lose touch with people who don’t know I’ve switched emails, have every copy of my resume go to a dead email address, etc. I set up my own personal email server. It was time-consuming and difficult, and it still doesn’t work 100%, but it’s mine. All things considered, G-Mail is incredibly slick, handy, and accessible. Yet, I’ve gotten so incredibly pissed off at Google that I’m essentially willing to become an old coot living in the woods at this point. I’m a techie, a computer nut, and that’s why I was able to set up my own email (build a house in the woods). But what about everyone else? It really bothers me. It threatens to kill what makes the Internet wonderful — anyone can pile on to share, learn, and create. But now, huge walls are being built. Google and Microsoft don’t play nice; neither of them want you to leave their little theme park. So they build bigger walls, and add barbed wire. Welcome to the internet concentration camp….

There is no silver bullet for this problem. The only answer is for millions of individuals like myself to step up and clean up the mess: once I get all the bugs worked out of my own email system, I’m setting one up for my parents. Then maybe another for a friend, in exchange for a case of beer. Linux (Ubuntu in particular) is getting really good. It still needs a bit more elbow grease before it’s grandma-proof, but the days of beating your head over Xconfigurate are starting to end, and not a moment too soon. Become a free agent, or risk being stuck on the same team forever.