New Album: ‘drouth’ released today.

Today I’m releasing my first album since 2012, and the first one that’s mainly chiptune based since 2011: ‘drouth’.

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The album is entirely composed on LSDJ using a bunch of different modified Gameboys, which were then in turn to control different instruments like a Commodore 64, Volca Bass, etc that play additional parts to give a much deeper sound. Along with a smattering of guitar and vocals, it’s much more an experimental (sometimes ambient) electronic album than a chiptune focussed one.

Unlike previous occasions, I’ve spent a lot more time putting the pieces together for this, even re-mastering the entire thing a few days ago when I realised that the original left the Gameboy sounding a little bit too harsh.

You can download it in full, for whatever price you choose, over at bandcamp – or stream at the bottom of the page.

Tracklist is as follows:

  1. obsolete by design
  2. mex
  3. flight risk
  4. bottle neck
  5. lazarus pit
  6. hang the joker
  7. Mr. K
  8. slinging dinghies
  9. wealth sprouts wings
  10. dinghy it
  11. tip of the spear
  12. playing the fool
  13. dilettante
  14. Koba

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Mr. K

It’s been a while since I got pished on a Saturday night and just recorded some music. Well, I ended up recording after an hour of fighting with my mixer to work out why the stereo output was only producing mono…

There’s always the risk that it could have been my crappy soldering, which meant testing out every possible step. So many variables. Surprisingly, it wasn’t actually any of the Gameboys, but the mixer.

I’m pretty pleased with the result, and it should give a hint as to what the next album will sound like. Listen to and download it below:

To finish off, here’s a picture of my tidied up workspace.

Hungover music making

On Saturday night a few of us headed out (full of rum) to belt out classic power ballads for a few hours. It was good times.

We didn’t feel all that great on Sunday though. Normally I’d just lie about and eat rubbish all day, which eh… I did anyway. But Lee aka radiomoths came round and we recorded the base of a new track with a bunch of different pedals, synths, and the C64. It’s all de-tuned and sounds a bit like the soundtrack of some robot death march from a film. Lee also took photos that I’ve stolen from his blog.

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After we were done, I ate some more rubbish food. Not too bad a way to get through a hangover.

 

Somewhere Over the Rainbow

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On Friday I spent some time in the studio working on different tracks. One of them was an experimental cover of ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ with my sister and her boyfriend singing and playing guitar. They studied music at University, and it was nice to record with people who knew what they were doing.

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We used a bunch of different effects to layer the sound up, and I added in chip drums later on.

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You can hear and download the track below. It’s ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ like you’ve never heard it before. In someone else’s words:

I could imagine it being played at a f**** up fun fare with porcelain dolls singing as they go round in a Ferris wheel.

Transforming a Gameboy

One of my work colleagues read about my Gameboy fiddling and kindly posted up one of his old grey DMGs that was destined for the charity shop to see if I could do anything with it. I decided to document its transition.

It was in the kind of standard condition for a used Greyboy of its age. The case was a bit roughed up and the LCD screen had vertical lines of dead pixels at either end. You can make them out below.


First things first was to see if I could fix that, as if the screen was dud, it would only really be worth spare parts. Luckily, it’s a pretty simple job, and before long the screen was as good as new.


With that, it was time to set about preparing the screen to put a backlight in. The old Gameboy screen was always a nightmare to see, so installing a new LED light source is a must. It’s also a tricky process, involving removing the foil back off of the screen itself. One wrong move and you can trash the whole thing. As it turned out, the adhesive on this particular Gameboy hadn’t corroded away, meaning it was a pretty smooth and simple process.


Then I put the Gameboy guts into a new case: transparent orange, which is a colour that was never available for the DMGs back in the day as far as I’m aware.


Next up, I installed a hex inverter chip to ‘bivert’ the screen. The new backlight polarising filter inverts the screen already, and so this step inverts it back to the regular display type, increasing the contrast in the process. It’s fiddly, but drastically improves the clarity. I’m pretty blind, so any picture improvement is a win.


It took a while as I didn’t realise that the backlight kit was missing a crucial resistor, and I had to go through each step to test it all again. A good lesson in not trying to do too many things at once.

Here’s the screen all lit up and biverted.


Next was installing a pitch oscillator that I had had lying about for ages. In other words, a small knob that changes the clock speed of the Gameboy to run faster or slower. What’s the point in that? For games it helps speed up boring parts that you can’t skip, but for music it lets you slow down or speed up things with the corresponding pitch change. Pretty damn cool.

The potentiometer fits into the space where the speaker sits, so it had to go.


I included a switch to turn the pitch oscillator on or off, which turned out to be a bit too big for the case…


I also wired up two RCA jacks for line level audio output. This wasn’t the ideal place to put them, but space was tight because of the other mods. I had begun to install a 3.5mm line out in the same position, but realised that the plastic seemed to be much thicker than in the other model I had done this on, and so the barrel was too short to fit through. RCA it is!


There was a lot of wires in there by this point. Just for fun, I decided to throw in some orange LED lights to give the case a nice glow. By the end of that, it was a bit tricky getting the case to go back together neatly.

At least I used appropriately coloured electrical tape…


So after a good few hours working on this beast, spread across a few days, here’s the finished result:


The case cutting and drilling leaves a lot to be desired, with rough edges obscured by the buttons and pots… But you can’t really notice. Despite that, I’m pretty pleased with the end result. Everything works, I learned a fair bit, and an old Gameboy has a new lease of life.

New EP: ‘really something’

After the last few posts concentrating largely on gear and production stuff, it’s good to be able to follow up with one centred on music.

I had planned to wait until I had an album together before releasing anything, but it became clear that a number of the earlier tracks had a sound that naturally branched off in a group. As a result, my first release in 4 years will be a 5 track EP titled ‘really something’. I can’t quite believe it’s been that long, but there we go.

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The tracks themselves are all fairly laid back, and stripped back a lot from my previous sample-heavy chiptune releases. The only time the pulse really increases a shade is on ‘Down Street’, a track which previously only ever featured on the ‘Relycs‘ collaborative release that was put out on cassette, and dedicated to abandoned tube stations.

It feels like a nice transition. Listen out for my pal Haigie’s laugh on track 5.

The whole thing is up to stream/download for free over on bandcamp.

 

Tracklist:

  1. more is less
  2. out of milk
  3. gender neutral robot
  4. Down Street
  5. more is more

Bringing my Commodore 64 to life

Gameboys are great, but arguably the classic analogue chip sound belongs to the Commodore 64.

The C64 was my very first computer, one that my parents got me when I was only about 4 or 5. As a result, it holds a particularly special place in my heart. Sadly the actual one that I had from back then disappeared at some point, but I tracked down a replacement later on, complete with one of the coveted working 6518 sound chips (or ‘SIDs’).

For ages I’ve wanted to bring the C64 back to life and use it as a vintage analogue synth, but the space required to leave it set up was always prohibitive. In my foray back into music, I decided it was time to take the plunge.

I already had all the bits and pieces I needed, including a really sweet expansion device called the ‘MSSIAH‘ cartridge, which plugs into the back of the ‘breadbin’ and adds MIDI support. Making use of a composite video to HDMI convertor that I use for my N64, I hooked it up to a monitor, and hey presto…

My desk is a bit of a jumble just now with various things on the go, but that’s not where it’s going to live permanently.

For the technically curious, here I’m using a C64 DIN out to phono/composite cable, with the video end going into an AVI to HDMI box for the monitor, and the audio portion connected up to my headphones using a phono coupler and phono to mini jack cable. This is just the testing setup though. When I switch to actually recording with it, I’ll be using a VGA monitor and running the phonos straight to a mixing desk for output.

I’m going to use it in a couple of different ways: to play directly as a synth, but also as an external synth controlled by the Gameboy, using LSDJ as a sequencer (see my previous post on this…). Using a MIDI thru box, I could run different channels into different devices simultaneously, which would sound amazing.

There’s loads of things to explore with the C64, which is pretty exciting, and should keep things fresh. Here’s a couple:

C64 SD tape emulator – To save sounds and patterns and all that you need an external device to store them on. The C64 used to rely on either cassette tapes (!) or floppy disks… and not the kind that most people are familiar with, but large, 5 and 1/4″, truly floppy disks. As it turns out, I actually have both of these…

  
  
but they’re not the most practical – taking up a lot of space and being a pain to use. In the past few years some intrepid people have developed gadgets such as a C64 cassette tape hardware emulator – that plugs into the back and allows you to save onto SD card. They’re pretty smart, but relatively pricey, so I need to see how much I’m actually going to use the thing before I commit.

Second SID – You can install two sound chips in the C64 with a bit of modification so that it can play polyphonically, and make it really sing. This doesn’t look too difficult to do, and could be a fun project for later down the line. I’d be interested to see if I can run two different chips (with different sound qualities) simultaneously, but I’m not sure if it’s possible because of voltage etc. Needs further research.

Picture upscaling – the video output was never designed for modern monitors, and certainly not to be run over HDMI at 1920×1080. As a result, the picture looks terrible – and the controls are almost incomprehensible with my crappy eyesight. I’m sure there are ways to improve upon it, such as through the use of a decent upscaler, but it also needs a bit more exploration.

The most important thing though, is getting it working as a synth first and foremost. At the moment, the sounds sound pretty weak. I suspect that might be because I’m not running them through an amp – so I’ll check that out. I’ve ran the diagnostics and the chip is fine, so it’ll require a bit more investigation. Just a matter of getting time to sit down and play with it.

Controlling Korg Volca with LSDJ on Gameboy + Arduinoboy

Once you get over the steep initial learning curve of learning how to use a tracker like LSDJ on the Gameboy to make music, they can be a real pleasure to use: both powerful and simple.

Whilst the sounds you get out of the old Nintendo handhelds are amazing, there comes a point where you feel like you’ve gotten all you can out of them for the track that you’re working on, and at that point start to look into layer sounds from different places. There are a ton of different electronic synths and samplers out there, but I’ve never been a big fan of writing loops on them; the process often seeming unintuitive and overly complicated. It would be far easier to be able to program them using the familiar LSDJ layout, but that seemed impossible.

As I recently discovered, it apparently isn’t impossible at all. Back in 2011 I bought a special DIY-built MIDI device called an ‘Arduinoboy‘ from a guy called Ralph Tyler (aka NeX), who is a bit of a legend in the Gameboy modification world. This clever wee box brings MIDI connectivity to the handheld, and I have always used it up till now to play the Gameboy as if it was a synth, using a bog standard keyboard (the musical kind) and an app called mgb to trigger the notes. Pretty cool, but it turns out that LSDJ can now be used to send MIDI notes as well. I stumbled upon a video from chip musician jefftheworld doing just that, with a bunch of different Korg Volas, and it sounded just wonderful.

Just watch this… Skip to 1 minute to see the Gameboy kick in.

I decided I had to give this a go, so got my hands on a Korg Volca Bass, which is a really cool wee beast. I already had the Arduinoboy, so figured it shouldn’t be all that difficult to get up and running.

I should have known better.

I connected everything up, and LSDJ was sending clock signals successfully from the Gameboy to the Volca, but it wasn’t sending the notes themselves. Hmm. After a bit of research on chipmusic.org, I realised that the LSDJ ROM I had loaded onto my EMS Flash Cart (a specially made Gameboy cartridge that lets you load ROMS on via USB) wasn’t the right version, and so didn’t support the MIDIOUT mode. Not a big deal, as once you pay for one version of LSDJ, you get access to them all. I fired up the EMS Flasher Utility for Mac in the Terminal, and loaded the new one over.

Everything connected up again; LSDJ set to MIDIOUT mode; and the notes added in via the newly available ‘Q’ commands (Q00) on the existing track I had loaded up to test things out… I hit play, and… nothing. After a bit more research, I discovered that because I had bought my Arduinoboy years ago, the software that it was running was also probably out of date, and didn’t include the support for LSDJ’s MIDIOUT mode.

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I’d never updated an Arduino board’s software before, and never even seen inside the Arduinoboy as I hadn’t built it… but, I’m no stranger to computers, and it seemed that updating the ‘sketch’ as it’s called would be as simple as opening up the case, and then connecting up the Mac to the Arduino’s onboard mini USB. That in mind, I grabbed a hold of my Tri-wing screwdriver (particular to Nintendo), and carefully began to open up the Arduinoboy.

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I forgot to mention, the Arduinoboy is neatly nestled inside an old four player adapter device, with the MIDI ports on the sides. Pretty cool.

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I got the case opened up, and discovered my worst fear. The Arduino board that was acting as the brains of the operation was a ‘Mini Pro’, which meant that it had no USB built in, requiring a ‘breakout’ board, or some other connection to load the software on.

Crap.

By the looks of things, this meant de-soldering a lot of the existing connections that Ralph had put in there, and I really really didn’t want to do that, as his work with a soldering iron would always be infinitely better than mine… since uh, he knows wtf he’s doing. However, I couldn’t see any other way around it,so dropped him an e-mail whilst I looked up some schematics online. I had a spare Arduino Uno board lying around that I could potentially use to load the software on, so all was not lost yet – it would just be a bit more complicated than expected (shock).

It turns out that Ralph is extremely nice, and with his encouragement I started to solder the various jump wires from the Uno board to the Micro Pro based on the steps here. The schematics in the comments were particularly helpful.

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There are various glaring errors in the above image. Firstly, I took out the header pins to solder the wires as it seemed easier to do flat, but didn’t check whether or not the pins would all be next to each other. It won’t surprise you to learn that they are not – so there were a couple of extra stragglers. Secondly, I used wire that was far far too thick, because stripping down the thin wire is more of a pain. As it turns out, trying to solder that stuff to a tiny Mini Pro board is not going to happen, so I had to join all of the strands of big wire to smaller wire afterwards. Sigh.

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Anyway, after a while I got all of the wires in place (give or take), and was ready to connect it up to the laptop and flash the software. Woohoo!

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But, of course that wasn’t the end of the story. It turns out that the Arduino Uno board I got isn’t actually an official one, but a cheap knock off. I knew this at the time of purchase of course, and was trying to be a cheap bastard. However, it then came back to bite me as the Arduino IDE software kept coming back repeating the same error – something about stk500_getsync() and how the board couldn’t be found. Even after installing the pokey third party drivers it didn’t seem to be working.

I went down a rabbit warren of Google searches, checking the verbose logging in the console for errors and getting led on a wild goose chase by problems that were nothing to do with my own, and before long I felt like I was hallucinating. I was about to send a furious e-mail to the eBay seller that had sold me the Arduino ripoff in the first place, when I tried to load the Arduinoboy software onto it – without the Arduino Mini Pro connected. That worked, which meant that the board itself wasn’t the problem – but something to do with the communication between the two boards. Interesting.

That didn’t mean things were solved soon after though, as the problems still remained, and there was no obvious answer. I had checked and re-checked the connections to the board so many times I could hardly see them any more when I squinted, and was getting more and more frustrated. I thought I might have accidentally short circuited something or trashed the board by over-heating it… Things weren’t looking good.

After ages I finally stumbled upon a different set of instructions. To sum things up, there are two different kinds of chip installed on these Arduino boards: the classic ‘DIP’ kind (which looks kind of like a digital cockroach), and the more modern ‘SDM’. The former can be easily removed; the latter cannot. Either way, they need to be bypassed on the host somehow – or else the Arduino programmer gets confused between the two boards and freaks out. It’s just that it’s easier to do with DIP chips than SDM. (Guess which kind I have?). There are all sorts of conflicting ideas about how to do this effectively with SDM chips on the web, but as it turns out, the easiest way is to upload a particular sketch to the Uno board. The Instructables article had a copy of this, and I’m re-uploading it here for posterity: serial-disable.ino.

Some other important things that I learned:

  • Crappy knockoff Arduino boards can be good, but also require more fannying about. You need to install special drivers rather than it just work out of the box. Everything is more complex and fills you with needless uncertainty and dread when things go wrong. Just spend some more cash and buy a bloody real one.
  • The ‘programmer’ choice in the Arduino IDE doesn’t make a difference for most purposes.
  • You need to make sure that all of the connections to the TX and RX points are removed (except the ones you’ve added from the host Uno board obviously), otherwise it will lock up the board and prevent you from uploading (thanks Ralph!). This meant more de-soldering and trying to remember where to put things back later. *bites nails*.
  • There was a whole host of talk online about how if you were using a ripoff Arduino host board you would have to hit the reset button manually on the Mini Pro at just the right time to get it to initialise properly and take the software properly, because the reset points on them weren’t there. As it turns out, you don’t need to do that at all; the reset point is just named slightly differently depending on the board you have – and it’s just a matter of finding out what that is and connecting it correctly.
  • You need to select ‘Pro Mini’ as the target board, as it helps bypass the host board’s chip. Or something.
  • There are some truly insane people out there giving some really bad and incorrect information about this.

The order I wired up things in the end was:

TX – TX
RX – RX
RESET – RST
GND – GND
5V – VCC

I can’t tell you how relieved I was to see this message:

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HALLELUJAH.

So began the task of putting everything back together. I’ve never had the steadiest of hands, and I’m in the middle of Dry January – so have the jakey shakes due to lack of alcohol consumption – so probably not the best time to attempt re-wiring some fiddly electronics that were originally put together by far more deft hands than mine. However, I got it all back in place eventually – hopefully the joins hold out! I do not want to take this thing apart again.

At first my heart sunk, as it didn’t seem like anything had changed. The LED behaviour was a bit weird (less active than before…), and the Gameboy was still just sending clock signals, not notes. AGHH.

After a bit of jiggery pokery, it all came to life though. I was shocked. The damn thing was working.

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I’m still not convinced that the LEDs on the Arduinoboy are going in the same pattern that they used to, but since everything seems to be working I’m going to put it down to the software change and think nothing more of it.

I shot a quick video to show the setup in action:

The sound is coming from both the Gameboy and the Volca simultaneously, and I’m using that particular Gameboy as it’s one of the few that still has the internal speaker intact (i.e. not ripped out for some other kind of mod). I fanny about a bit with the Volca controls to show how you can manipulate the sound, but I have no idea what I’m doing with it yet really.

Explanation of steps: You need to set LSDJ to MIDIOUT Sync mode, stick the Arduinoboy on the correct mode (for me it’s whatever the second LED means), and make sure the Volca is set to the right MIDI channel. The first column of LSDJ corresponds to channel 1, and so on. Hold down Write as you power up the Volca to change the channel.

And that, was tonight’s misadventure. I’ve no idea if I’m learning anything by doing all of this stuff or not.

 

Playing (Live?) with Ableton

On Saturday morning I had a Novation Launchpad delivered, and spent a good chunk of the rest of the weekend trying to figure out how to make use of it. I could easily get it to act as a MIDI input device for the Gameboy (which is sweet), but I really wanted to use it as it was primarily intended: to load up a bunch of chip loops and trigger them live as a sequencer.

After much swearing and frustration, I finally managed to get the loops synched up and laid out for one of the most recent tracks I’ve written. I just need to plug the Launchpad in, and I can play the whole song with the pads – triggering different combinations of sequences from about 1 to 4 bars long.

Much like a lot of the stuff I’ve been playing with lately, I wasn’t really sure why I was doing it in the first place; there was no real end game. I just wanted to see if I could do it. Being able to play with and manipulate songs/sounds that you’ve created on a tiny Gameboy screen in a more ‘live’ or dynamic fashion is pretty cool.

Now that I’ve managed to clear the biggest hurdle of getting it to work, it’s gotten me thinking. Theoretically I could now play a lot of my chiptune tracks live without just hitting ‘play’ on LSDJ – but I don’t think that would really be all that big of a draw in Glasgow. However, it does mean that I could set up chains of melodies, stick them into Ableton and then play them live as more of an instrument, as part of some kind of band setup. I’d just need to find some folk willing to play guitar and potentially drums in a weird quasi grunge electronic band.

Could be interesting.