Uncategorized

The MicroMoorg is Complete

After months of work in my off hours and spare time, and learning a pile of new skills I never had before, I am very happy to say that the MicroMoorg project is finally done! The results are right here, and I’m very happy with how it came out. Check it out!

The new casing is made completely of red oak, a nice dense hardwood, with a thin but sturdy piano hinge to hold the pieces together. It folds through three positions from a very MS20ish almost-straight up and down, a more Moogy reclined angle, and all the way back to the original flat MicroKorg shape. This last bit was very important to me since I wanted to make sure I could still carry it around in the same gig bag that I had for years.

Thanks to this project, I know more about woodworking an soldering than I ever have before. Take if you will all that wood along the outside edges of the top and bottom pieces– it isn’t just decoration, it’s structural. Once you cut the little Korg in half, you end up without much in the middle that you can attach something like a hinge to.  I had the epiphany one day of building these rectangular U-shaped pieces and attaching them to the sides of the old plastic housing. This would give me a nice solid structure that I could run a full-size piano hinge along, but it came with its own complications. For instance, how are you supposed to even build something like that?

According to the Internet, real woodworking types use finger joints to make corners for thin pieces of wood like this. Having absolutely no idea how to do this, I watched a few videos on YouTube and went on my way. After a couple false starts, I eventually picked up the right set of woodworking tools (some new bits for the router and some bigger clamps, for instance) and finally made it work right. Once I had these pieces finished up, I was a lot more confident that I might be able to pull off the rest of the project after all. You’ll note that the side pieces are cut at a gently sloping angle, to match the MicroKorg’s original shape when flat. While this did make things a bit trickier to measure, cut, and fit, the aesthetic results were well worth it.

But another issue with the new design was the wiring. Back when I’d first decided to take this project on, I was planning to simply have an open space between the two halves for the wires to go through. With a big hunk of wood in the way on each side, this was obviously not going to work anymore. But since I was working in hardwood, I was able to drill some slots in each side without compromising the structure. But then with all this extra wood in the way and the wires now having to snake around a bit, I would need to extend all of the signal and ground wires. I toyed with the idea of trying to find new, matching wires, or putting longer wires into the existing headers, but eventually settled on cutting each of the signal wires in half and soldering in about five extra inches of 26 guage wire on each one. This would give me more than enough space to make it through the full rotation. In fact, I measured the extensions such that the soldered joints would always remain safely inside of the housing on either side, no matter what position it’s in. Finally, I wrapped each piece and all of the openings in a thin coating of teflon to make sure everything would slide along nicely without wearing through the wires or getting anything bunched up.

Finally, I had to figure out the base and kickstand. The base is a solid hunk of red oak, and it accounts for a large portion of the weight. As a matter of fact, the whole thing weighs 9.9 pounds now, roughly twice what the starting weight of the MicroKorg alone was. I did build the whole thing in such a way that I can completely detach and replace the base at a future date, should I be feeling frisky enough to make a new, lighter, better one. The side rails on the base are simply nailed on in place, too. I could’ve done the same finger joints that I’d used to make the upper hinged casings, but those are hard to do, and I didn’t have to here.

The kickstand was tricky. I wanted something that would let me pick from a couple discrete positions, but it still needed to fold completely flat. First I tried to find pictures of how Moog does it, but nobody wants to take a picture of their MiniMoog from the back while it’s open. I drafted out a couple ideas, but in the end went with a very simple single-hinged kickstand with a grooved slot in the bottom. The top bit of the hinge is reinforced by an unseen piece of oak on the other side of the plastic, which also helps stiffen the back panel a bit, since it’s only screwed in on one side now. I will eventually put in a bit more reinforcement to this piece, but for now this works, and works quite well. You may notice a bit of extra space in the back of the well that holds the kickstand when the whole thing is closed up. This little extra gap is very important, as physics cruelly dictates that a rectangle’s diagonal is longer than its sides. So, when it’s opening up, that space gives the little foot someplace to go before it comes back to normal.

A hand-rubbed finish went on all of it, with some cursing at the dusty surfaces in my shed. I added a bit of trim to set off the rough edges of cut plastic, some simple rubber feet for tabletop use, and there you have it: The MicroMoorg. Apart from one of the arpeggiator buttons being a touch wonky (but still functional), everything works great. All the controls, all the keys, the wheels and knobs, everything. I even managed to get all of the screws back in without any leftovers! I just set it up into its old home above my Korg x50 (I really am a Korg fanboy, that’s a nanoKontrol2 in the background and I have an old X3 out of the shot here), and this two tiered setup is fantastic to play. I set out on this whole project figuring I’d like it, but I am in love. Having the edit matrix and the real-time knobs right in front of you is wonderful. And, if you ask me, it just looks amazing up there!

Now that I have this project finally wrapped up, I should probably get back to making music, shouldn’t I? As happy as I am with how this project came out, I’m not sure you could pay me to do it again. Well, maybe if you payed me a lot. And you were really nice about asking. But really, back to new music: If you sign up for the newsletter, I’ve got some interesting things to tell you on that front in the near future, too.

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Production

More Kontrol Than Ever

Right after Christmas of last year, I posted about my first run in with the KORG nanoKONTROL and my adventures in getting it hooked up with ProTools. Many things have happened in the intervening seven months, but two items are of particular note here. First off, KORG came out with an updated version of the nano series, tweaking all of them in pretty good ways all around. Second, I finished graduate school, and set about to upgrade a bunch of bits of studio equipment and software as a kind of graduation present.

I’ve only had it plugged in for a few minutes, but the nanoKONTROL2 is an upgrade to its predecessor in many ways. First off, it has native support of the HUI protocol, which ProTools speaks without any further configuration. Thus, you plug this guy in, fire up ProTools (or any number of other editor softwares), and you’re good to go. One of the most immediate differences is the support for the lights behind all the buttons. While the original nanoKONTROL does have lighted buttons, the hacked scene file I had to use to hook it up didn’t let the DAW light buttons up appropriately. Thus, you had no indication on your control of the state of any of your tracks, or even which tracks were selected. Withe the nanoKONTROL2, all of this comes working out of the box. The dedicated solo, mute, and record switches work exactly as you’d expect, and the transport controls all do what they should as well. There are a few new controls on this device as well. In particular, there are buttons for switching track groups (something that had to be done with a mouse with the original nanoKONTROL) and for navigating between markers in the song. Even a few minutes in and it’s already a better experience overall.

I feel kinda bad about upgrading so soon after getting the original, but it’s hard to argue with such progress. I’m going to keep it around for the moment and reprogram it into a general MIDI controller, with the intent of using it in software synths, effects plugins, and things of that nature. We’ll see if it ends up being truly useful in that mode, but there are at least many good possibilities ahead.

Another newcomer to the recording studio is the Akai MPD18, a 16-pad drum controller. As I understand it, this is what one uses to create Phat Beatz. Or bizzeatz. I’m not sure, really. In any case, the velocity sensitive pads on this will be much more conducive to programming drum tracks than either a mouse or a piano keyboard ever were. Since it’s just a basic MIDI controller as well, and not a drum machine in and of itself, I can also use this as a MIDI trigger for other things. Perhaps someday if I ever get up the nerve to play live, this will all come in handy.

As you can see by the low-quality smartphone shots of my desk here, all of these devices leave me with about a mile and a half of USB cables strewn about, leading me to get yet another USB hub for the workstation. Several years ago, I very gladly picked up one of these guys to keep things from falling back into the oblivion behind my desk. Cordies are totally awesome. So simple of an idea, but so well executed. I haven’t yet figured out if latency is going to be an issue with all of the intervening hardware, but I guess we’ll find out soon enough.

The rest of the studio upgrade is all software, most of which is still on its way. Finally able to upgrade ProTools, Reason, Melodyne, and Amplitube to their latest releases, I’ll have a shiny and full suite of new tools with which to work on new music.

Oh yeah– there is new music. There is actually quite a lot of new music, and once I get all the software installed and set up, I’m going to be working on it in earnest. Keep tuned for more of that.

Production, Uncategorized

I Have Kontrol

Update: For those wandering in looking how to use a nanoKontrol with ProTools 8, I’ve since updated to a nanoKontrol2 and ProTools 9, and the two work seamlessly out of the box with each other.  On the chance that you’re still shopping around for stuff, I highly recommend going with the nanoKontrol2. Original post below...

I hope that everyone had and/or is having a wonderful holiday season! Have you downloaded Light The Tree yet? It’s only going to be up for another week, and it’s completely free! My holiday has been filled with a lot of driving around to family events, but now I think we’re finally settled into the house for a bit.

Exhausting, yes, but lots of fun, with a brand new year that’s almost begun. And what did I find under the tree this year? Why, nothing short of a new piece of gear! OK, this rhyming has to stop. (Anybody got a mop?) Seriously.

What you’re looking at in the product shot (courtesy of a fine review from SKRATCHWORX) is a Korg NanoKontrol. This lovely (and tiny) piece of hardware is really just a USB MIDI controller with a bunch of sliders and knobs and buttons on it. Nothing fancy on its own, but when you pair it with the right software you’ve got a pretty powerful setup on your hands. The obvious use case for me is for a mixing board, controlling track volumes and plugin controls in ProTools. With nine independent sliders, each with a knob and pair of buttons, you’ve got some really nice physical control over the mixing process. Since ProTools is notoriously picky about non-Avid-owned hardware, it sadly didn’t work out of the box. However, there is hope! You see, with its included editor software, this little guy can spit out pretty much whatever MIDI control codes you want it to, thereby pretending to be basically any kind of control surface out there. I used a great little tutorial to wire it up into ProTools, and I was very quickly in business. The first eight sliders map to the volume control on the first eight channels, and the last slider maps to the volume control of the last master fader. In other words, it does exactly what you’d expect it to do. In fact, I was a bit amazed at how smoothly everything worked. I will likely be tweaking the control mappings going forward, but this is a fantastic starting point, and I’d like to thank the folks at Trikome for their setup.

One of the main reasons for loving it so much has got to be the hardware transport controls. The ability to start, stop, rewind, and record from dedicated buttons cannot be beat. This way, I don’t have to fumble over to my computer keyboard to mash the right arcane button combination just to get things to start and stop when I want them to.

Mind you, the NanoKontrol doesn’t do any recording or mixing on its own — it is nothing more than a simple MIDI device. But like all good tools, it’s in exactly the form factor it needs to be in to make it useful. I’m going to need to rearrange my desk a bit to accommodate it, but I really needed to rework the studio space anyway. Maybe that’s something we can look forward to in the new year.

Music

Track Notes Vol 1.2

Welcome to part 2 of the first installment of Track Notes, wherein I take a few minutes to talk about songs from the latest album, giving you a brief glimpse inside of my head. At this rate, I’ll have four total parts here to get through all of the stuff on Results Not Typical.

But before I get into that, I just want to take an opportunity to get you plugged into The Electric Goodies Newsletter. Subscribers have already gotten six free MP3s of behind-the-scenes works in progress. I’m also running a small contest available to list subscribers only. Join today, check out the archives, and have fun!

Ghosts of Persistence

Sometimes echoes of the past remain long after the presence of memory was last called upon.

This is one of those lilting progressions that I came up with just sitting at the piano one evening. Thankfully, I keep a small digital recorder sitting on top of said piano to capture the neat things like this that decide to show up. I was trying to figure out what to do with this bit, but it kept wanting to stand on its own. The bridge in the middle keeps it from becoming a completely repetitive affair.

Unfurled

As the sun sets on another day, you feel everything that had once bothered you begin to melt in the crimson rays that bathe the horizon. Breath slowly comes easier, deeper. The universe is yours to contemplate as your mind and soul unwrap and spread, billowing into the breeze. Contemplation is now your only goal, until the sun should choose to meet you again.

This is a song of quiet reflection, with the complexities of a day’s thoughts shown by layered and extended chords. You really should listen to this one with your eyes closed while taking a deep, slow breath. Or maybe a few breaths, as this is the longest song on the album. It’s also one of only a couple songs I’ve ever produced without a metronome of any kind. I actually tried to clean it up and quantize things when I first recorded it, but doing so completely destroyed the soft and loosening feel of the original demo. So here you have it, wobbly tempo, mashed chords, and all.

Whether or Not

Some choices in life are simple. To be or not to be, to do or not to do. And some things remain unaffected by these choices, a steady constant in a stream of binary waverings.

One of the things I really like about this song is that the left hand of the piano is fairly constant the whole song, never actually changing the bass note. It’s entirely up to the right hand to add tone and color, and it makes the otherwise steadfast left hand take on a whole new and exciting life in context.

Ligature/Signature

When is a signature something more? When it is a flourish of personality completely tying itself to the heart and drive of the one whose hand is the only that could truly make it. A flourish in life that identifies more so than the words it makes.

This goofy little tune is really an excuse for me to pay homage to ragtime, honkeytonk, and hot jazz. I like the off-kilter chord progression, and it was one of the first times I’d tried for some of the weirder harmonics in a song. Somehow, it still sounds OK. Also, the piano was a bit tricky to get to sound right and fit with the feel of the track, but I think the chorusing does its job well there. As cheesy as it is, it’s the kind of song that I think would be a blast to play live with a jazz trio sometime.

The Clock on the Wall in Limbo

The longest wait in the most boring waiting room in the universe. You watch the clock wondering if the ticking will ever stop. Here, it does not.

This was a literal 11th-hour addition to the album, replacing another track that I had planned but scrapped at the last minute since it wasn’t working out at all. That’s always a hard thing to do, but it’s important to know when something isn’t working. Maybe that other song will come back later. I like the simple, loopable 12-bar blues on this one, and the melody and bassline that counter each other and play off each other’s rhythm. Fun fact: this was recorded with a single sound patch from my Korg X3, with the bass in the left hand and the vibes in the right. I nearly added drums and some other stuff on top of it, and even almost put a ticking clock effect in there, but in the end I’m very glad I didn’t.

Stay tuned, parts 3 and 4 will be coming soon!

Music, Production

A Weekend with the Wavedrum

I’m currently borrowing a KORG Wavedrum from a friend of mine. For those unfamiliar with this fantastic instrument, it is an acoustic drum synthesizer. It works by using vibration sensors underneath a real drum head and rim that respond to all of the dynamic playing that a hand drum is used to, and then sending those signals to a synthesis engine. The engine then takes the input waves and modulates them with various PCM sources and algorithmic sound models to create the output.

What all of that technobabble really means is that this isn’t a drum, it’s a thousand drums in one box. And unlike a drum machine or normal synthesizer, it is played like a real acoustic drum would be. In short, it’s pretty awesome.

I’ve only had it at my place for a few days now, but I’ve managed to spend a few sessions just playing with it. It has an impressive range of tones, most of which mimic real drums of various flavors in addition to a bunch of very otherworldly sounds that have very little to do with drums. However, the fact that you play these sounds like a drum adds a rhythmic character to it. Another great feature of this instrument is that it outputs directly into the recording system. This means that any incidental ambient noises won’t bleed over into the recording. As you’ll recall, this was a necessary feature for my acoustic guitar as well. It turns out that a home studio is difficult to run with a 10-month old in the house. Incidental ambient noises are the rule of the day.

After my initial noodling, I set about using the Wavedrum on an actual song. This one has a bluesy little groove to it that my traditional drum machine just wasn’t going to capture. I tried to program it in Reason, but the timing was all off and it felt horrible. Ever wonder why so many techno songs are in straight 4/4? It’s because it’s really easy to program that. I’ve programmed a few different step sequencers before, and they’ve all been 16-step 4/4 sequencers. The Wavedrum, based entirely on hand input, has no sense of quantization. Thus, I quickly found out something I knew already — that I am not a very good drummer. I’ve got a decent sense of rhythm, but translating that into a particular instrument isn’t always so straightforward. Thankfully, modern post-production lets me tweak things in software where needed. That said, I am trying to have a fairly light touch on this.

In any case, I jumped in and tried a few different drum sounds before settling on a nice round conga sound. With a little compression, it gave me a nice snappy sound that complemented the acoustic guitar and bass that drives the rest of the song. The Wavedrum, being a very different kind of sequencer, turns out to be quite difficult to program. I wasn’t getting the deep booming tones that I was after for underlying the higher accents, so I ended up breaking out the drum machine for just those bits. After trying unsuccessfully to sync with the underlying groove, I simply recorded the drum machine output to a track and un-quantized it by hand to match. This is the opposite of what you usually do with drums.

After a few sessions of recording, re-recording, and tweaking, I’m getting relatively happy with the state of the song. I have a vision of some kind of bell over the top of it, or something to that effect, but I’m not sure it needs it. I always have trouble knowing when to stop.

Oh yes, the title? “By Pint and Pound”. Now you have the first title of a song from Results Not Typical. Originally the title was “Blood and Flesh by Pint and Pound”, I thought it was a little too macabre. What do you think though? Should I change it back or keep the shorter version? Maybe you’d have to hear it first. Maybe I can arrange that, if you want.