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’.

drouth album cover

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

drouth album back cover.png

 

Calculator Music with Houston Tracker

Not too long ago I read about how some genius called ‘irrlicht project’ had hacked old Texas Instruments graphing calculators so they could be used to make 1-bit music. Naturally, I had to have a bash at this myself. There’s something particularly special and rewarding about being able to compose whole tracks on devices that were never intended to work that way.

The models that support the ‘Houston Tracker‘ software are seemingly everywhere in the US, as they were apparently a mandatory purchase for many schools. That means they can usually be picked up fairly cheap second hand over there. However, as it turns out, these weren’t all that prevalent in the UK, so they are still fairly pricey – coming in at around £30 on eBay.

I finally got an okay deal though, and got to work getting Houston Tracker onto the device. It’s not all that straightforward, as you need a specific kind of cable – which costs almost the same as the damn calculator. Importing one from America worked out to be the most cost effective route in the end. Installation wise, there’s a lot of fiddling about to get the dependencies right on OSX, unless you use MacPorts – which saved the day. Once it was all up and running though, it was pretty good fun to use – with a whole host of features that I didn’t expect.

ti83plus.jpg

I recorded a fairly simple tune to find my way around the controls, and decided to record it. The raw calculator sound was a bit too bare for my tastes, so I threw in some minimal effects and overlaid some glitchy guitars/harmonised vocals. Here it is, my first calculator music track:

Patchblocks as Effects Processor

Recently I came across a modular synth system called Patchblocks, and thought I’d give it a bash, as the components themselves weren’t too expensive.

The idea is pretty simple, but deceptively powerful. Essentially you get various inter-connecting blocks that all have two nobs and two buttons, as well as stereo audio out/in ports. By connecting them up to a computer via USB you can use dedicated software to program them to do a whole host of different things, such as simulating drum beats, or acting as effects processors. The latter is what I am particularly interested in.

The device itself is pretty sweet, and doesn’t take up too much room, with a footprint just over the size of a credit card. I plucked for the clear blue plastic version, which apparently glows in UV light… you know… for all those times I’ll be playing live.

The build quality is good, and despite an exposed PCB on the sides, it feels pretty solid.

The coolest thing about these blocks is that you can set it up in whichever way suits your workflow best, rather than just ‘making do’ with workarounds. I’m always on the look out for different audio effects, and one of the things I miss when recording is having a hardware panning control. Sure, I could always just make use of a MIDI controller, but that still routes into Logic’s automation feature, which has never quite agreed with me. So, I set up one of the knobs to correspond to audio panning. That left me with two buttons and one knob free. I added in a filter, with the remaining knob controlling the frequency, and the right button switching through between High-Pass, Low-Pass, etc. The other button I set up as a bypass, so when it was ‘on’, the filter was active. The LEDs also correspond to the particular different modes.

Here’s what that all looks like in the patchblocks software:
Screen Shot 2016-02-19 at 17.19.58.png

It looks complicated, but it isn’t really when you get used to it. Just like that, I have an effects unit that’s customised to do exactly what I need, and which I can modify at any point. Pretty cool.

If you’ve got a patchblock yourself you can check it out here. You’ll need the custom ‘LED Helper’ block that you can get on the Community download section of PB.

Sadly the block I received seemed to have a dodgy output when the audio input circuit was running, so I’ve sent it back for a replacement. The PB people couldn’t have been any nicer about it though, so I’m looking forward to testing it out properly when it comes back.

If you like hardware controls, but want to be able to fulfill a host of different functions in just a few boxes, check out the patchblocks. If you’re into the synth side of things more than the effects, there’s even a dedicated block to provide MIDI DIN in/out functionality. That’s something I might have to explore at a later date.

Update: I got my replacement unit back, and whilst some of the artefacts have been cleaned up, the quality is still noticeably worse than the input. It looks like it’s down to the sample rate of the unit itself, which is a shame – as it limits their usefulness as effects processors.

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.

albumcover.png

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

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.