Making Music with Test Equipment

Test Equipment

Recently I embarked on an experimentation with old audio test equipment, Specifcally, these devices used in labs and by engineers to diagnose problems with amplifiers, radios, and telephone lines. Err, I think. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what they were designed for, as I was no good at physics.

Either way, they look cool, and I’ve been interested in exploring some of the possibilities for a while, but didn’t know where to begin. However, I came across this guy called Hainbach on YouTube, who has put together an awesome guide that helped give me the push to dive in. I picked up a few different pieces for cheap on eBay, and began playing about with them to see what I could do. I mostly got a hold of audio signal generators, which are essentially what gives synthesizers their voice. The extent to which you can control them differs from instruments, but I was able to get some amazing sounds out of them.

I put together the track below with a single one of these devices, controlled by my Eurorack to some extent. Unlike a lot of my other music, there’s very few effects on here, and very few layers; the sounds of the test equipment stand on their own. Pretty much everything you hear (minus drums) is from the Feedback Function Generator. I love that I can get a really incredible ratchety bass sound out of this, jumping down from nice and melodic to aggressive. Perhaps I’m imagining it, but I haven’t been able to get that kind of usable range from any of my other equipment. Either way, there’s something deeply satisfying about making music with aging bits of technology that were never intended to be used this way – it sparks the creative process in a different way.

At some point I’ll go through and write a bit more about this stuff in detail, but for now, I put together this video with my initial faffing about:

2021 Goals

I don’t tend to do these kinds of posts for anything else, but with music there’s so many different ongoing projects, that I think it’s helpful to set out what I want to get done in the year, then look back on it at the end. I’ve touched upon some of this before, but here goes.

1. Release ease and desist EP

I have a full EP basically finished and ready to go under the ease and desist moniker. I just need to get through the final mixing and mastering stages, but am finding it hard to get the motivation to do so. It’s a bit different to my usual styles, so is proving to be a challenge. If I don’t get this done in the next 12 months I may as well quit everything.

2. Use YouTube More

I used to post synth videos on YouTube, and gathered just over 1k followers in a fairly short space of time. It became a faff though, so I stopped. This year, I want to make an effort to pick it back up, as it can be a good motivator/way to experiment with different projects. The specific targets are to i) post at least 12 videos in 2021, and ii) get the subscriber count to 2k. Completing the first goal should hopefully lead to the second. I’ve already re-branded the channel as allmyfriendsaresynths and posted the first video… with a bunch more in progress, so this should be achievable.

3. Listen to 10k tracks

I use Last.FM to track a lot of the music I listen to, and I’ve noticed that I am often most creative musically after listening to more music. However, I am not very good at just having music on ‘passively’, so it can be tricky to balance. I need to make an actual effort to sit and listen. Anyway, in the past I have never hit 10k tracks in one year. 2021 is the year to make that happen. I’ve worked out I need to listen to about 30 tracks a day, which should be doable…

4. Finish two KOSMO rows

I have started building a modular synth in the KOSMO format. I want to complete the build of the case, and at least two rows of the modules. Again, should be achievable.

5. Release another album

I have a whole pile of tracks built up from various projects, but nothing full length yet. The last release I put out was 2 years ago, so I want to end that drought.

LED Lighting my Modular

modular synth

I’m the sort of person who is far more comfortable in dark spaces than I am with bright, overhead lights. I also love how colourful lights look in pictures, so am always on the hunt for different ways to implement LEDs. They also go hand in hand with a sweeeeet looking music setup.

Anyway, I used to have a neon sign in the home studio which gave a real nice ambience, but unfortunately it blew up… so I had to hunt for a replacement. I trialled some 5v RB LED strips on the outside of the case, and it looked pretty cool – but it needed some tweaking.

I came across the Doepfer A-197-3 module which allows you to control LEDs with CV signals from the Eurorack, and it got me thinking. I didn’t want to spend the money or HP on the Doepfer without first figuring out if it would be worth it. It worked with 12v LED strips, so I picked up 5m of them off of eBay, complete with what claimed to be a ‘sound reactive controller’. In theory, it should play along nicely with the audio output from my rig, though to be honest, I wasn’t holding out much hope. These kinds of thing are infamously of questionable quality, and I fully expected to have to pick up the Doepfer module anyway.

However… it actually turned out alright. The modes and sensitivity controls work quite nicely, and despite a few hiccups, putting the strips together was easier than I expected. I ended up lighting the outside of the three main parts of my setup, and it looks pretty great. I put together a video below going into some more detail, and showing them in action. Take a look below if you’re interested.

This isn’t going to be the end of the lighting adventures though. I have a few ideas up my sleeve that I am going to try out over the next wee while, so watch this space (and maybe subscribe to the YouTube).

2020 Update: The Reprise

studio portrait

Back in March I wrote an update on what I’d been up to lately, and what I planned to do over the coming months, which seems oh-so-very hopeful now. Given that it is now the end of the year, and we are still just as ravaged by the Coronavirus than we were back then (if not more so), it seems like an update is in order.

ease and desist

I started out writing tracks for a single ease and desist album, but the styles varied so wildly that it seems like this is more likely to become a few different releases. One of them is focussed on hip-hop, which was a surprising development. Almost all of the composition work is done, I just need to put the finishing touches on some of the tracks, and get the final mixes together. This is proving more difficult than it seems, as I don’t really have any experience with mixing hip-hop vocals. Here’s a sneak peek at the potential artwork…

ease and desist album

Hog Wyld

Hog Wyld bass
Photo by Lee Jones.

The Hog Wyld album has been delayed a number of times, thanks to the ever changing set of restrictions which have prevented us from getting into the studio together. In retrospect, recording almost 20 tracks for a 10 track album was also probably an overly ambitious target. Either way, the main tracking is done, and so now we are onto the mixing and tweaking stage. In addition to the album, we finished up a bonus release, exclusive for our Kickstarter backers, which has a whole pile of covers, remixes, and other bits and bobs. That was truly a slog to get through, and I never want to record a cover ever again.

We had a wee Japanese tour in the works, with gigs booked for October, which was unfortunately cancelled thanks to the virus. It seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime type thing, but hopefully we will find a way to make something similar happen again in the near future.

Closet Organ

My other band have been plowing ahead with writing, and we just released a festive single, called: ‘Prepare for a Digital Christmas’. It was played by Jim Gellatly a few days ago, and you can find it on Spotify and Bandcamp (and wherever else our distributors send to).

Closet Organ - Prepare for a Digital Christmas

We are slowly but surely recording new tracks, and will be looking at putting out some kind of release in 2021.

In Progress

That’s the main news so far from my more ‘organised’ projects, but what else am I working on right now?

Synth Jamming

I realised that I wasn’t making quite as much of my own individual music over the past year or so because I felt like everything had to be put towards some kind of release. I haven’t put anything out in so long on my own that there was self-imposed pressure there, and for me pressure doesn’t usually equate to creative satisfaction. The most productive times I’ve had in the past have always been linked to experimentation and curiousity, so I’ve spent some time setting up my studio space to get back into that mindset, and been really enjoying just playing about. I’ve been uploading some of these home jams to YouTube:

Numerology

Despite normally being allergic to computer based sequencers, I’ve (re)discovered something called Numerology, which is a really interesting sequencing tool for Mac. It’s been inspiring me to write a bunch of new stuff, and I put together an explainer video over here:

Kosmo modular build

Inspired by my friend Michael, I’ve begun to start building out a new modular rack in the Kosmo format, created by Sam Battles (aka Look Mum No Computer). It’s already become a huge pain in the ass, and I’m remembering why I stopped doing DIY builds a few years ago, but in the end I think it’ll be worth it. I don’t want what little time I have to be completely sucked up by this project, but it is also cool to dig out the box of components again and see what sort of weird noise devices I can put together. It’s also impressive just how much I’ve forgotten since I last tried something like this. I have various circuits on breadboards kicking about that I have literally no idea how they work, so… that might take some work.

other…

studio portrait

I have a whole bunch of tracks written and in various stages of completion (or collaboration). Finding the right collection of tracks that will work together as a release, and under what moniker, is proving tougher than it has in the past. Perhaps I have higher standards nowadays… or perhaps I’m just crippled by indecision. Whatever it is, I’m hoping that is one more thing that will change in 2021.

Encore Strat DIY Project Guitar

In my wild youth I used to fling my guitars about on stage with gay abandon – something that I’ve done less as I’ve gotten older. At this point I’m too attached to most of them, and not prepared to risk a terminal injury from another aerial flight into the drumkit at the end of a gig.

To try and remedy this, I picked up an Encore Strat (in a rather fetching hot pink colour) for a measly thirty quid – the plan being that I would upgrade a couple of bits and pieces to make it passable for live use, and deploy it for the higher energy situations where things may end up getting out of hand. Here is the Facebook marketplace picture that sold me on it:

Pink Encore Strat

As you can see, it looks pretty great – especially with the matching pink headstock. In person, there were a few things of note:

  • The body itself was extremely light, and felt like it would literally just smash into smithereens if it took a hard whack in the right place.
  • Perhaps because of this, it seemed like there was an unusual amount of sustain, with any vibrations or knocks resonating through the body pretty well. Maybe not the best for other guitars, but for a feedback noise monster this should be pretty great.
  • The pickups and bridge were fine. As were the pots. Pretty bog standard stuff.
  • The pickup selector switch was genuinely atrocious, and was so loose I couldn’t really tell which setting was which. I’m not sure if that was a problem from the factory, or something that had developed over time – but either way it wasn’t good.
  • The machine heads were really crappy and plastic – and it seemed like they didn’t hold the strings in tune especially well.
  • The fretboard was generally fine, and the action not too bad at all – though the neck lacked a bit of polish – and it felt fairly low quality overall as a result.
  • The frets badly needed a polish.
  • Since it was second hand, the pickguard was a bit grubby.
  • One of the strap buttons were missing.
  • There was no shielding of the cavity – just a portion of the pickguard.

Since the plan was to actually play this guitar live – rather than to just smash it up for the hell of it, I wanted it to be at least semi respectable, and took the opportunity to modify some of the poorer quality elements to bring it up to scratch.

Encore Strat Upgrade
I have no idea what I am doing.

I toyed with the idea of going the full hog: replacing the shoddy pickup selector switch, installing higher quality pots, etc, but in the end I stripped the upgrades down to the most ‘essential’ elements that I was going to be using.

  • I removed both of the tone knobs, and shifted the volume knob down so it was out of the way. This mod is a slightly more exaggerated version of a mod that I do to all my Strats, as I always end up cutting my hand on the pots nearest the strings when thrashing about otherwise. At first I put the knob way down in the bottom position, but that kept confusing me as it didn’t match my other guitars, so I shifted it back up to the middle instead which was fine.
  • Rather than replace the crappy pickup selector switch, I decided to just remove it completely. I wasn’t realistically ever going to use anything but the bridge pickup, so I could save some time and cash this way.
  • In the same vein, I removed both the neck and middle pickups at first, but later decided to just disconnect them, but leave them in place so the guitar looked a bit more ‘guitar’ like, as opposed to a shell with gaping holes. Plus, it would help keep random detritus out of the body cavity..

Encore Strat Copy Upgrade
Halfway through the upgrade process. Switch, knobs, and redundant pickups removed.

  • I installed cheap strap locks – as it seemed sensible to make sure that the guitar wouldn’t go flying off unexpectedly, should I be tempted to swing it around my head at some point.
  • The frets got a polish, and the finderboard was conditioned with lemon oil.
  • I put in a snazzy yellow tort pickguard to offset the pink, and spice things up a bit.

Encore Strat Yellow PickguardUnfortunately, the standard Strat sized pickguard didn’t fit properly – it was a little bit too big, and the screw holes didn’t match up at all. If I was precious about the guitar I would have been concerned about this, but since I’m not, I just wedged it into place and made new screw holes the old fashioned way – with brute force.

  • I replaced the crappy machine heads with some black EZ Lock tuners. This was the most pricey upgrade, but one that was probably necessary, since keeping the thing in tune is fairly important if it’s going to be of use live. I can always salvage them later if I end up destroying the whole thing at some point.
  • The single coil pickup in the bridge made way for a dirt cheap, no brand humbucker – to try and match the output level of my other guitars. After a bit of wiring problems, I got everything in place, and it sounded surprisingly good.

Encore Strat Yellow
With the new humbucker in place.

I didn’t bother shielding the cavity, as it seemed like a bit of a waste of money. The humbucker was naturally quieter than the single coils anyway, and the new pickguard had more extensive shielding on the back than the stock pearloid one, so I decided to leave it as is.

I was fairly surprised with how well the guitar played before the modifications (crappy components aside), and after I switched things out it sounded pretty decent, was much more comfortable to play, and looked a lot cooler. I loved how light the whole thing ended up being, as I could easily fling it about. The only problem now is that I’ve become quite attached to it, and not sure I’ll want to bash it up. But we’ll see how long that lasts.

5 Things I Wish I Knew About Playing Guitar Earlier

Stephen Blythe Closet Organ

I have been playing guitar for (gulp) about 20 years now. Unfortunately, time served does not equate to ability in this case, as I squandered much of that in a love-hate relationship with the instrument.

Stephen Blythe Closet Organ
Me, pretending to play guitar.

In the past few years I have come to realise that my approach to playing guitar has been pretty abysmal, and that much of what I did was purely out of habit rather than had any particular logic behind it. Once I started to question that stuff and got better, there were a bunch of things that I wish I had come around to sooner. Here are some of them:

1. Your pick matters

I have been using Landstrom Sharkfin plectrums for as long as I can remember. I don’t really know where I picked this up initially, but I am sure I gravitated towards them just because they looked cool. In any event, I’ve stuck with them because they feel comfortable, and have a few different angles that can change how you interact with the strings. However, in the past few years I have gone from using the ‘medium’ GP02 picks, right up to the GP107 ‘Super hard’ picks – which is a huge jump in thickness terms.

Landstrom sharkfin plectrums

The thing was – I tend to play pretty aggressively when strumming, and was always afraid that I would snap strings more easily with a hard plectrum, so went for an in-between option. What I didn’t really appreciate was that a flimsier pick makes it much more difficult to pick quickly and accurately. Switching to a harder pick almost instantly had a positive impact on my playing. Oh, and I haven’t broken any more strings than normal.

p.s. I went to the official Sharkfin site to do some research on the pick names for this blog, and came across this testimonial, explaining why they use harder plectrums: “I think it has something to do with masturbation. You’re hand isn’t as fast when you get older. The red one is extremely soft”. I have literally no idea why they chose to publish this. 

2. Cheap strings are a false economy

When I started playing, having to constantly replace strings was a nightmare as I never had any money. What I didn’t realise was that I would be replacing strings a lot less if I spent a few quid more on a half decent set, as opposed to the cheapest ones I could find. Now, I spend about £5-10 a set (rather than £2!), play even rougher, with a harder pick, and rarely snap strings.

Guitar Strings

3. You need to intonate

…and some guitars intonate better than others.

Intonation is the process where you adjust the strings to make sure they are in tune all the way along the neck. I vaguely knew about doing this, but never really bothered doing it as I assumed it was a huge job. In most cases, it’s actually relatively straightforward – and it makes a huge difference to the sound. No matter how well you play, it will sound crap if your guitar isn’t intonated properly – especially if you are playing further up the neck, or doing any kind of clever stuff like tapping. Ideally you should intonate every time you change your strings, and definitely before you record.

R0006055

In some ways I wish I had continued to live in ignorance, as now I am on an endless, impossible quest to get all of my guitars perfectly intonated, and whenever they are out it drives me crazy.

One other important thing I learned was that certain guitars simply will not intonate properly with different string gauges, or with alternative tunings. For example, I have always played with Light Top, Heavy Bottom (10-52) strings, because somebody told me a long time this was more balanced for heavier music – and I’ve never really deviated from that. However, I have a bunch of unusual guitars, and it turns out that many of them (especially the vintage ones) aren’t able to adjust adequately to compensate for the heavier gauges – so won’t intonate properly.

Similarly, I have a Danelectro Longhorn bass which I could never get to sound in tune, and wrote it off as a design flaw. However, I realised that this problem was partly the string gauge, and partly due to me tuning a half-step down by default. When I tuned to standard, and used a different gauge, the intonation improved dramatically.

Danelectro Longhorn
Danelectro Longhorn

TL;DR: Intonate your guitars. If you’re having problems, adjust the gauge of your strings, and/or figure out whether you actually need to be tuned a half step down.

4. Practice makes a difference (and music theory probably helps)

If only somebody had told me (!).

Even though I played regularly in a band, I wasn’t really writing, practicing, or learning anything new outside of that for a long time. Part of this was because as a teenager I didn’t really enjoy reading tabs or figuring out songs by other bands; I just wanted to come up with my own sounds and make songs with them. Equally, the prospect of studying music theory seemed incredibly dry, boring, and far too much like homework for my liking. I was firmly of the position that learning theory would just mean I ended up stuck in a box creatively anyway.

That renegade approach worked fine for a while… but when I hit a natural plateau and my ideas dried up, I simply just didn’t play guitar any more. Doing so felt like a chore, rather than something that I enjoyed, and that’s the way it stayed, for a long time.

At some point I got fed up not really knowing what I was doing, and forced myself to at least pick up the guitar regularly. I looked into learning some scales, and to try and play some lead parts from bands like the Smashing Pumpkins that always seemed impossibly difficult before. After a few false starts, it didn’t take long before I noticed a vast improvement over a fairly short space of time. Once I sat down and consciously made an effort to understand what I was playing, or stuck with tricky songs until I got them right, it was as if a lot of things clicked into place at once. It was as if my muscle memory machinations synched up with this new knowledge of the neck, and I was no longer as afraid of picking, or that if I improvised I would hit a duff note.

Stephen Blythe Closet Organ
Live in Scarborough. Photo by Steven Jeffels

Now, I deliberately try and develop different styles of playing that I would never normally bother with (tapping, shredding, etc) – using a metronome to keep me on the straight and narrow. Even if I never really get to a decent level with these specific skills, I now actually enjoy playing guitar – and miss it if when I can’t. Weird.

When it comes to theory, one thing in particular that I found incredibly useful was to learn how the Circle of Fifths works. This provides a quick and easy way to understand different notes in a scale, what keys work with which, etc. Somebody had told me to do this a long time ago and I never bothered, but when I actually took the time to sit and make sense of it, it was mind blowing – like a secret key had unlocked all this musical theory that I thought was impossible to grasp before. I even got a Circle of Fifths watch to remind me how it works…

Circle of Fifths Watch

So long story short: Practice every day, even just for 10 minutes. Play other folk’s songs, and learn some theory. Rather than kill off your creativity, it will expand it.

5. Don’t stick with the same kind of pickups

When I was younger, I would slap a humbucker in any guitar I got my hands on. Why? Well, because they were louder (duh), but also because I used cheap crappy strings that snapped all the time, and I had to have a similar output so when I was switching guitars live there wouldn’t be a huge difference in sound. I even had two USA Fender Strats that were exactly the same for this reason. I’m not sure why it never occurred to me that I should just buy better strings rather than another guitar, but still.

shergoldmeteor
Shergold Meteor with big chunky pickups

What I realised when I started to collect more guitars was actually that the diversity of sound was an asset, rather than something I should aim to flatten out. Instead of getting the same kind of tones from every guitar, having the choice between P90s, single coils, vintage pickups, humbuckers, etc means that I can be much more creative when recording – like adding in a silky, round additional guitar part to complement things more than an additional brash humbucking lead would.

commodoreguitar
A 1970s Matsumoku Commodore guitar with low output vintage pickups.

TL;DR: Embrace sonic diversity. Don’t try make everything sound the same.