Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Diddley Bow

Hello again everyone!

This semester has been a busy one, with hosting the 2010 SEAMUS National Conference, teaching, recovering, etc. I'm teaching a course in circuit bending/hacking this semester and it's gone quite well.

We've explored all kinds of interesting circuits, based primarily on the work of Nic Collins. This has included a variety of microphones, from contact microphones to electret mics. We've also built a variety of drivers, buzzers and oscillators.

One of the most interesting projects was built off the work of Ranjit Bhatnagar, a NYC based artist. He was featured on NPR for his homemade guitars, and I instantly knew that this was a project we needed to try.

The basic ingredients are:

-Piece of wood
-Guitar string
-Magnet wire
-Eye bolt
-Wood Screws
-Sewing bobbin
-Corner brace
-Various nuts and washers (I used wingnuts too)

It's pretty easy from there. I drilled a small hole in one end of the wood for the guitar string, big enough to fit the string through but small enough to give the anchor a place to stop. Then I attached the brace on the other end of the wood, tied the string to the eyebolt and tightened it. The wingnut allows for quick tuning.

The pickup is the "hard" part. I simply wound the magnet wire around the bobbin, leaving about 6 inches from each end loose. I stuck the magnet in the center of the bobbin, then hot glued the whole thing together. (NOTE: you might want to place the magnet close to one end of the bobbing, which will become the top. I achieved much better results when I did this!). A dab of hot glue attached the pickup to the wood under the string, and then I simply attached the loose wires to a female audio jack (in my case I was using a tiny amp that needed an 1/8th inch connection, but a guitar amp needs a 1/4 inch connection). Plug it in and jam out!

But wait Twombly, there aren't any fancy circuits or power...or...well...commercial parts! How does it work?


It's pretty simple, really. The magnet creates a small field that the string interferes with when it vibrates. The magnet wire picks up a tiny amount of electricity from this field and sends it along to the amplifier, which...well...amplifies the sound. With a tiny amp like the ones we use in class (battery powered, 1/2 watt of pure audio bliss), it is easy to overdrive the amp, which is how those Chicago blues men got such great fuzz from their early electric guitars.

Now, what I built was technically a Diddley Bow, a one-stringed instrument that is most often played with a metal or glass slide. It's a lot like a lap guitar, but can be used for all sorts of interesting things.

Here is Seasick Steve performing one of his great R&B tunes on Diddley Bow, Save Me:

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Star Trek Movie

Hi everyone:

I've seriously neglected the blog for over a year. This isn't due to lack of interest - far from it. Rather, I've managed to busy myself with life and other writings, including regular columns for my local newspaper, a now defunct wine magazine...not to mention my job and life.

Anyway, I recently traveled to Washington DC for a performance, and while there we went to a large IMAX theatre at the Air and Space Museum annex at Dulles Airport. I'm not a huge Trekkie but it was fantastic to walk into the building and see a real Space Shuttle on the way to the theatre - not many local cinemas offer that kind of experience!

I was mostly interested in seeing what was likely to be a technically ground-breaking film on an advanced projection and sound system. I should take one moment to explain that, unlike TRUE IMAX, the Star Trek IMAX experience was not produced with IMAX cameras, but was upsampled from the same stock that the standard film was.

As that was the case, there were some moments, particularly in the soundtrack, where certain artifacts were heard that might not have been as noticeable in the standard cut. In particular, non-ADR speech sometimes included a fair bit of noise. That's not something I'd expect from a professional film. Neither was the most offensive moment for me - something that broke the spell of willing suspension of disbelief.

It occurred after a scene in which Kirk and Spock begin to realize that they could be friends. Kirk playfully slaps Spock's shoulder, which was covered by his uniform. The resulting gunshot sound was so completely faked - too loud and unnatural - that I could not stop thinking about it for the rest of the film.

After leaving the theatre, I decided to see the film again. Maybe that moment was a result of the conversion to IMAX, I told myself.

Nope - it persists in the standard version as well. I jokingly tell my friends that the rest of the film (including a fantastic skydive that starts in space and ends on basketball court sized platform) was totally believable and that this sound is the only non-realistic moment, but it's actually not far off from the truth.

In reality, nearly all sound effects are carefully crafted by sound engineers and added in after filming. This is mainly due to the inability of a microphone to get a high quality, "true" sound without actually being in the shot (and therefore visible). This is part of what Michel Chion calls the "audiovisual contract", the agreement (so to speak) between what we see on screen and what we hear in the soundtrack that lends realism to the film. In effect, a soundtrack must be extremely UNrealistic in order to be understood as realistic.

I know - it's ironic.

But it's true. Think of the pioneering work done by Ben Burtt and others on Star Wars. While they broke many laws of physics, the sound of that film just seems "right." To the crew, Darth Vader had a British accent and no heavy breathing. To us, we need only hear the breathing in order to know that Vader is near.

Star Trek shouldn't (and won't) win and awards for Sound Editing. Otherwise, it was an enjoyable film and I'll gladly watch any sequels. I just hope that they are as careful in the future with the sound as they are with the visual effects.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Test Post

Hi, I'm showing off my blog!

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Crochet Graffitti!

Via Neatorama, the Chicago Methods Reporter has posted an interesting article about the Micro-Fiber Militia - a group of urban knitters who have recently begun adding their knitted creations to Chicago's eyesores. The group notes the calm that comes from the act of knitting as a reason for their art, but they also enjoy the temporary aspect - if the weather is bad, their art is ruined.

The question that everyone wonders, however, is if this is considered vandalism. New York City famously declared war on graffitti in the 70's, and so Chicagoans wonder if this art will suffer a similar fate.

It appears not.

The police don't consider this vandalism, as the art is easily removed with a snip of the scissors. I could go on a rant about the this, but I'll save my personal feelings for myself :)

Check out the link for some great pics.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Hit Songs and substance abuse

My TV crapped out the other night (R.I.P.). To help pass the time I watched "Half Baked" the other night...a DVD I ordered on a whim in my undergrad days (oh so long ago). Anyway, I couldn't help but click on a story about the percentage of popular songs that mention substance abuse.

Researchers tracked the top 279 songs as measured by Billboard last year. How many mentioned substance abuse?

1 in 3!

Rap was the top, but Country, interestingly, was in second place. Then again, I can remember swaying along to "There's a Tear in My Beer" at the Tavern on the Beer (yes, a real place, also RIP) in Western New York.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Deep from my files...

Woke up this morning at 3am and have failed miserably attempting to get those last few minutes of sleep. Yes, it's true - even professors get stressed when the new semester starts.

Anyway, I decided to go through some old papers that I've written. I stumbled across a trove of brief papers that I wrote for graduate seminar (appropriately numbered MUSC 666) on Rock and Roll. These gave me a chuckle as I was clearly trying to channel my inner Lester Bangs (or is it cooler to say Chuck Klosterman now?). Here's a paper I wrote to answer the question everyone's dying to know - who will be seen as the most influential artist of the 90's?


Fuck Generation X. We can’t seem to get anything right. The Generation that was supposed to make ‘loser’ cool instead gave the term added substance. Can you think of a group of kids with more promise, more potential than at any time before? I can’t (but then again, I am a member of this shitty group and honestly, I don’t have the desire to look up anything pesky like facts). Born in the late 60s/early 70s, we witnessed multiple failures of government, from Tricky Dick to Jimmy Carter’s Iranian uselessness to Reagan’s complete ignorance of middle America. We saw the US lose a meaningless war, multiple failed assassination attempts, the Space Shuttle exploding (now twice), our parents on welfare, our parents divorcing and remarrying, violence on TV, leg warmers, computerized spell checkers…heck, we’re predisposed to be failures. Our failed hippie parents brainwashed us into truly believing that we had little chance of affecting change in this world, not to mention that the ugly 80’s further conditioned us to be very embarrassed of our childhood.

At any rate, as we grew into our teens and twenties, music finally started reflect us. Screw Michael Jackson – now we have Nirvana! We were young enough to retain some paltry amount of youthful idealism, calling ourselves ‘losers’ but really meaning it in a self-depreciating way. Nirvana, Soundgarden, Beck (by the way, I think Beck’s “Loser” will be remembered as our anthem), Alice in Chains, and even darker groups like Marilyn Manson and Nine Inch Nails are all examples of groups that reflected Gen Xers basic apathy toward society.

So what does this have to do with influential musicians from the 90s? Simple. It ain’t Nirvana. No way. Jeff Gordinier, writing in Entertainment Weekley, states, “If ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit” eradicated the pox of bad pop from our biosphere, will someone please pass the news along to Carson Daly?” (remember the Biosphere? Another failure) If Nirvana and Grunge isn’t influential now, just a few years removed from the 90s, then Dave Grohl has little chance of winning the “Most Influential” Grammy in 2030.

For my money, the business model introduced by Barry Gordy Jr. with Motown in the 60s has been most influential on music today. Does that mean that I see P. Diddy as the Barry Gordy of the 90s? Perhaps, but I think that we’ll look back on the rise of artist producers from the 90s as most influential. Trent Reznor, Dave Grohl and Lenny Kravitz (to name a few), wrote all of the music and played all of the instruments on important 90s albums. In Hip-Hop, artists like Dr. Dre and Puff Daddy wrote and produced a significant and influential body of work. Given the prevalence of ‘Pop’-py beats and high production values on music today, I’d name Dr. Dre as most likely to be named as most influential artist of the 90s in the year 2030.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

DIY Audio

This semester I'm teaching a course in circuit bending called "DIY Audio." Part of my motivation to teach this course is that electronic musicians rely so much on software to create and manipulate sounds that we sometimes lose sight of our roots. Students in this class are learning about basic electronics, soldering as well as getting a chance to be creative and really sniff out as many different sounds from their electronics as possible. We've built speakers, microphones, hacked radios...this week we will be hacking electronic toys, which will be a lot of fun.

As you can imagine, this class has attracted a lot of attention from the student body and I've already been interviewed twice for the student paper. Below is a link to the most recent story. Enjoy!

University Chronicle

Monday, October 01, 2007

The Beep Heard Round the World

Beep Beep.

50 years ago this week, the Soviet Union launched the Sputnik satellite. Weighing 183 pounds and about the size of a basketball, the polished sphere was the first object placed into orbit by humans. It travelled at about 170,000 miles an hour - about 98 minutes an orbit. It transmitted that beep for 22 days (until the batteries wore out) and returned to earth 3 months after launch.

Some interesting facts:

-It was launched atop a rocket designed to carry nuclear warheads, which allowed a much greater payload than the US's measley Vanguard project, which had a 3.5 pound payload.
-The US planned on launching Vanguard to celebrate the International Geophysical Year (July 1, 1957 to December 31, 1958).
-Sputnik means "Simplest Satellite" or "Co-traveler."
-The original launch date was Oct. 6 1957 but was moved to the 4th as Soviet scientists feared that the US was going to launch Vanguard on Oct 5th.
-There is some dispute about the sound of the beep. The speed of the beep was measured and certain conclusions could be made, particularly about the pressure inside the spacecraft. NASA has a recording available on its website : NASA Beep but as you can hear, it differs from the recording at the beginning of this entry. Specifically, the beeping is not of a uniform speed (it is pulse modulated). Don Mitchell has a good explanation of why he thinks that the NASA recording is incorrect.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Virtual Concert

On September 14th the Liverpool Philharmonic will present a concert in Second Life. Reports of this event focus on the novelty of it, and I'll admit that a full symphony concert is a probably a first for SL.

How does a symphony put on a concert in a virtual world like SL? It's actually quite simple. Like most live SL musical events, the audio is simply streamed in (like an internet radio station) and in this case, live video will be streamed as well. In a sense it's like watching TV on your computer.

In SL it's very difficult (due to syncing issues) to coordinate music in-world. Usually it consists of a short audio clip that's paired with a "pose ball" (which is a device that animates your character). A few instrument makers have built solo instruments with simple interfaces that allow one to enter in melodies (like using a MIDI keyboard). Until the technology develops it is unlikely that we will hear an av *create* music live in SL in the traditional sense. Luckily these issues matter less for more avant-garde sound situations.

Maybe I'll arrange a scratch orchestra performance someday soon....

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Let Them Sing It For You

Let Them Sing It For You is a website that takes whatever text you input and then "sings" it by taking words (or bits of words) from popular music. I found myself spending hours inputting all sorts of inane banter, even writing many blues stanzas and plugging it in. It's great fun to hear the results and you can even attempt to name the source of the original (I think that "love" comes from Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love").

Check it out!
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