Well here we are in the final week of 2017. As I look back on the year, I realize that I’ve made a lot of music, and watched almost no TV in 2017. I don’t regret it. In fact, I hereby resolve to do the same in 2018. However, I feel like I’ve done a really half-assed job of promoting the music I have created this year. I really need to step up to the plate on this because I have a lot more music in the pipeline for 2018. I hope you’ll take the time to listen and that you find some of my music interesting. You are welcome to listen to, and download, all of my music, for free, any time you like, at my music blog, www.electricearthmusic.wordpress.com, but allow me to present to you, dear reader, the gift of music this holiday season.
Not that long ago I told you about my new album, Vintage Startraveler , and the synthesizer I built from scratch, the GeoSafari Modular Analog Synthesizer. Since then, however, I’ve released two new videos featuring music from the album. These videos feature old footage that I found in The Prelinger Archive, a collection of movies and videos in the public domain. I turned the final cut on the album, Black Hole Energy Field, into the soundtrack to The Visitor, the story of an animated alien who gets frightened away by some Cold War era government propaganda. This alien originally starred in a weirdly religious driver safety film made by the Methodist Church, called Stop Driving Us Crazy.
Native Planet draws heavily from an old, sci-fi film titled Assignment Outer Space. The movie had terrible dialog, but exactly the kind of space footage I wanted. Intermittently, you’ll see shots of me, at the controls of the GMAS.
In addition to building synthesizers, I also enjoy creatively rewiring, or circuit-bending, electronic toys, and turning them into weird musical instruments. One particular toy, a Casio ML1 toy keyboard, has proven quite precocious. “ML” stands for “Magic Light.” This one-foot-long keyboard has a tiny two-octave keyboard, and red LEDs light up under each key when you press it.
While probing the electronic brain of this toy, I discovered several contact points that, when momentarily bridged, cause the ML1 to malfunction in such a way that it spontaneously composes its own original music. When manipulated in this way, the ML1 generates complex original musical themes that repeat, but change in subtle ways that evolve over time. The ML1 has it’s own aesthetic, a Merzbow meets Super Mario kind of vibe that takes some getting used to, but I find the ML1’s music quite interesting and compelling.
It was an honor to collaborate with the ML1 on the album we made together this year. I feel that Post-Apocalyptic Noise Fields for Active Listening barely scratched the surface of our musical potential, and I look forward to collaborating with the ML1 more in 2018. For now, here’s a video I made from the track, ML1 Quartet from our new album Post-ApocalypticNoise Fields for Active Listening. I titled the video “The Supreme Joy of Spontaneous Creation,” because of the short audio clip that starts the video. I created the video collage from a collection of TV commercials, a military training film and an anti-drug propaganda movie from the ’60s, all from the Prelinger Archive.
What’s ahead in 2018? You haven’t heard me play didgeridoo for a while, have you? Right now, I’m working on a new didgeridoo album that I’m really excited about. I don’t know what to call it, but here’s a couple of videos that’ll give you an idea of what’s ahead.
Thanks for reading and listening!
It’s been a while since I’ve written about my music, and I’ve built up quite a backlog. I make music that is just as obstinately original and out-there as the opinions I cultivate, because the conventional music of this culture is just as dead as the ideas it was founded upon. I make my own music because I want to hear something that I only hear bits of in other people’s music, and I like music that challenges the listener, and traditional musical ideas. I’m not interested in preserving musical traditions, I want to make music for a very different future.
Still, I am a product of my time, and when I was young and the future looked bright, synthesizers were brand new and seemed to me like almost magical devices. Back then, I liked what Edgar Froese, Morton Subotnik, and Klaus Schulz did with them much more than I liked what Walter Carlos, Kieth Emerson or Patrick Moraz did with them. I liked the people who explored synthesizers on their own terms, terms like millisecond and frequency, rather than those who played more or less traditional piano music on these new instruments. I still enjoy that early psychedelic electronic space music and you can hear that influence in a lot of my music.
Tom Robbins reminds us that “It’s never too late to have a happy childhood.” so I recently did something I’ve wanted to do since I was 15. A couple of years ago I created the GeoSafari Modular Analog Synthesizer, a crude but unique electronic musical instrument that I built from scratch. I’m sure I told you about it.
When I was 15, I was in my first extra-curricular musical project with some of my friends from school. We called ourselves, “Raw Sewage” and we sounded almost as good as our name. Two of my band-mates in this ensemble built their own synthesizers. At the time, I was not at all impressed by these machines. They didn’t look anything like musical instruments. They looked like something a 15 year old would build in his dad’s workshop, out of scrap wood. They had loose wires dangling from them, and looked like they could fall apart at any moment, but the thing that made me most skeptical of these machines was that they were powered by a 9 volt battery.
Back then, I knew that all “real” rock-n-roll gear plugged into the wall and weighed a lot, and these machines did neither. They sounded terrible too. The machines seemed to be very unpredictable, and even the guys who built them, couldn’t figure out how to make them work most of the time. When the machines did make noise, they seemed as surprised as the rest of us by the noises they produced, and none of them sounded very good.
Still, as a teenager, I had friends who built their own synthesizers, and shared their PAIA catalogs with me, catalogs full of synthesizer kits you could build at home. I thought it would be a cool thing to do, but my own early attempts at soldering did not go well, so I focused on other things. Before long, I met someone who had a “real” Moog synthesizer and discovered that it sounded almost as ugly as the machines my friends had built.
Eventually, I bought a Roland SH-09 monophonic analog synthesizer for myself. I figured out how it worked, and learned to play it. I discovered that synthesizers really need reverb to sound good. The reason synthesizer music sounds so spacey has as much to do with the artificial acoustics added to them, as it does with the signals the instruments produce. Ironically, I got rid of my Roland when I went off-grid, because it required AC power, while everything else I now use runs on 9 volts DC.
Years later, however, when I decided I wanted a new synthesizer, and I needed one that could run on 9 volts DC, I knew I could build it myself because if Phil Casey and Andy Izold could do it, when they were 15, I could do it too. So, a couple of years ago I built the thing, and for the last couple of years I’ve been exploring its musical potential. Today, I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of what it can do, but I know that a lot of what it can do is sound really awful.
Once in a while, however, it sounds pretty good, at least to my ears, and lately I’ve been getting a little better at it. I have assembled a collection of some of my favorite electronic realizations from the GeoSafari Modular Analog into a new album. I call the album “Vintage Star Traveler” because it reminds me of the golden age of science fiction. It reminds me of a quaint, optimistic vision of rocket-ships and space stations, and technology without limits.
I don’t hold out much hope for such a future, or even think it’s a good idea, but I do feel nostalgic for that time in the past when it seemed possible. Primitive analog synthesizers helped conjure those visions of the future, and fueled the idea that technology would change everything. Now that technology has changed everything, the GeoSafari Modular Analog takes me back to a time before we knew how badly it was all going to go.
I made a video to go with the title track from the album. To create the images for this video, I recycled some old video feedback and experimental footage I shot back in the ’90s when I did more video work. I like the way it came out. The video has a rather retro psychedelic look about it that, I think, matches the music. Please check it out.
The album contains more than 58 minutes of dreamy, futuristic soundscapes created with the GeoSafari Modular Analog Synthesizer. I find the whole album quite relaxing and energizing, and I like the way my brain feels when I listen to it. I hope it does the same for you. You can listen to the whole album and download it for free here:
You can listen to all of my music, download it for free, and learn more about it at: www.electricearthmusic.wordpress.com
I’ve written before, about how few Americans are capable of making anything for themselves anymore, but the story of MacArthur High School freshman Ahmed Mohamed, who was detained at school, and eventually arrested, because he brought the digital clock he built from a kit, to school, blew my mind. First, it blew my mind that there’s still a 9th grader out there who would rather build an electronic kit than slaughter virtual aliens while driving recklessly through cyberspace.
Second, it blows my mind that teachers were alarmed, rather than delighted by this. A decent science teacher would have asked Ahmed how he built his clock, and how it works, and then ask him if he’d be willing to put the clock on the wall, where they would use it to tell time for the rest of the semester. You never know, another kid might find himself staring at that clock, counting down the minutes till the end of class, and think:”I wonder if I could build a clock like that.” At worst, it sells educational electronic kits, at best, it launches technical careers.
Finally, it blows my mind the most to imagine the cognitive dissonance between Ahmed who saw an electronic kit and thought, “That looks cool! I want to build that clock”, and teachers and cops who thought, “Why would anyone want to build a clock? Why doesn’t he just look at his phone if he wants to know what time it is?” Clearly the defeat of human creativity is complete. We have become such passive, conformist consumers that we now consider building your own clock a form of dangerously deviant behavior. It’s a brave new world.
I’m sure the entire experience traumatized Ahmed in ways that even a trip to the White House and a personal visit with President Obama won’t entirely erase. The kid likes circuit-boards, but now he thinks that he is freakishly weird for liking circuit-boards. This will become a defining moment of his life, and he will probably always feel self-conscious and nervous about how people might react to him, a Middle-Eastern man, buying electronic components, for instance. His innocence is lost.
I sympathize. I loved circuit-boards as a kid, and I still do. I loved taking radios apart, and I assembled a few electronic kits, but not many of my projects from that era ever worked as well as Ahmed’s clock. As a kid, I didn’t quite get the hang of soldering electronic components.
In the past decade, however, I have rediscovered my inner nerd, mastered my soldering technique and built myself a small collection of electronic musical instruments and audio gear, including a Theremin, a suitcase full of circuit-bent toys, an all tube guitar amplifier, and a stereo tube pre-amp. This past Summer. I built my most ambitious project yet:
WARNING: This is going to get nerdy!
This is a highly idiosyncratic, if not completely original, modular, analog synthesizer of my own design. I call it, The Geosafari Synthesizer because I mounted all of the circuitry inside the plastic housing of Geosafari, an electronic, educational game popular in the eighties.
I found this Geosafari game at our local thrift store and bought it for $1, In it, I saw the perfect housing for my synthesizer. I recycled the rectangular red and green LEDs from the game, and remounted them in the original holes. On the left, the LEDS display the clock speed, and step number of the sequencer. On the right Red LEDs indicate “power on” to each of three primary oscillators, and one noise generator, and a green LED indicates decay time of the envelope generator.
The circuitry fits into the space originally occupied by the Geosafari game cards.
I was also able to utilize the battery compartment, for battery, and extra patch-cord storage, and the built in speaker still works too. I even recycled a transistor and a capacitor from the original Geosafari circuit-board. Other than that, I completely replaced the guts of this Geosafari game.
Here’s what went inside, to replace the original electronics: Two “Atari Punk Consoles” this famous circuit originally devised by Forrest Mimms, has a lot of musical potential, and two of them together more than doubles the fun. With a flip of a switch, they can be heterodyned. Heterodyned oscillators effect each other in interesting ways that can’t be recreated by mixing them through an audio mixer.
Beneath them, I included a white noise generator. I got the white noise gen schematic from an old website that suggested we build these devices to prevent malignant forces from using low-frequency radio waves to reprogram our brains. If it does that too, I’ll consider it a bonus. Rounding out the signal generating circuits, I included a simple 555 based, audio frequency oscillator, just to have one very straightforward oscillator without the built-in frequency divider.
In the middle section of the control panel, you’ll find all of the signal modifiers, starting at the top with a voltage controlled filter. I built the filter from a schematic I found online. The filter is a critical section of any analog synthesizer, and I like the way this 741 based filter sounds. This was the first resonant filter amplifier circuit I’ve ever built, and I chose this schematic for it’s simplicity, and easy availability of parts. It does what a filter is supposed to do.
Beneath the filter, I have a simple, one-stage envelope generator. I had planned to skip the envelope generator, because a standard four-stage ADSR envelope was just too complicated. Then I found this nifty little circuit from the folks at GetLo-Fi.com. How could I resist adding this simple one-stage decay envelope to my synth. It only took three transistors and a capacitor, all of which I had on hand, so I built it on the edge of the filter circuit board, and added the controls to the control panel.
Beneath the envelope generator, I included a Low-Frequency Oscillator, to add modulation to the filter, the amplifier, or any of the oscillators. I got the Low-Frequency Oscillator circuit from a youtube video. The guy was using this particular circuit to make an LED gradually light-up, then gradually fade out, and repeat the process at a steady rate, that you could increase or decrease by turning a knob. He used the circuit to add lights to his X-wing fighter, Millennium Falcon, and USS Enterprise scale models. I attached the LEDs to photoresistors, with shrink tubing, and used the same circuit to control the oscillators and filter on this synthesizer.
Below the LFO, a simple Voltage Controlled Amplifier allows me to modulate the volume of the signal with the LFO. In the future, I hope to add some accessories to this synthesizer, like a keyboard, and a light-sensitive gestural controller, which I could also use to control volume, through the VCA.
Consuming the entire left third of the control panel, a ten-step voltage controlled sequencer allows me to cycle any of the on-board oscillators, or any voltage-controlled analog synthesizer, through a musical pattern of up to ten steps. I can change the speed of the pattern, the frequency range of the pattern, and the number of steps in the pattern from 2-10. The two columns of five knobs at the far left allow me to change the pitch of each individual step.
I found a youtube video that showed me how to convert a commonly available, and very inexpensive electronic kit, the Velleman brand LED chase-light kit into a pretty cool sequencer, so I decided to build one myself. As it turned out, not all inexpensive electronic chase-light kits are created equal. Mine turned out to be a different kit altogether, but with a little research, I was able to figure our how to make it into a working sequencer as well.
How does it sound? Take a listen! In this video I took it for a test flight.
By next spring, you might hear it in some new music.
I hear a lot of people lament the enormous quantity of questionably researched, grossly speculative and patently false information posted on the internet, as though “quality of information” were the primary obstacle to making “smart decisions.” If you ask me, people don’t make bad decisions because they lack information. People make bad decisions because they lack courage and imagination. The blather they see on the internet distracts them from this fundamental truth, and that’s why they spend so much time looking at useless information on line.
I’m not saying that the internet is a terrible thing. The internet is a terrible thing, but that’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about information, now. Long before we had the internet, we had information. The problem with information, is that it is always, “in formation.” The truth never appears “in formation.” There’s always more to the truth than can fit “in formation.” Besides that, information only appears “in formation” because it has an agenda. Reality doesn’t become information without the intentional efforts of someone with at least a point of view, if not a scheme, and information always conceals at least as much as it reveals.
The problems of information becomes compounded on the internet, because, with the internet, we increasingly replace reality with information, and increasingly, information becomes our most familiar environment. None of what you see on the internet is real or true. At best, what you see on the internet reflects reality, but not without distortion, and the distortion generally reflects the dominant misconceptions of our times. In other words, the internet reflects a view of the world, not as it is, but as the least imaginative among us, imagine it to be.
Personally, I don’t think we have a problem with good information vs bad information, I think we have entirely too much information, and we make dumber and dumber decisions all the time. In this avalanche of information, collectively, we are losing our grip on reality. Nothing makes sense anymore. You can’t trust anything you read, and everything is more complicated, and way weirder, than you can imagine. That’s the truth, but here are a couple of examples.
I bought a pair of shoes online. I had lots of “good” information” about the shoes. I knew how much they sold for in six other stores. I knew who made them, where they were made, and what they were made from. All of this information came from reliable sources. Most of it was verified by multiple sites. When I placed my order, I knew I had found the right shoe at the right price. Of course, when they arrived, they fit poorly and hurt my feet.
I had plenty of information about the shoes, good reliable information, convincing information, in fact. That is one big problem with information on the internet. Most of the solid, reliable, truthful information that you find on the internet, has no other purpose than to convince you to do something stupid, like buy a pair of shoes without trying them on first. Sometimes the devil is in the details, but sometimes the details just serve to distract you from the stupidity of the whole idea.
We should never forget that the “whole idea” behind the internet was to insure that the people in control of the US strategic nuclear weapons arsenal, and the rest of the US military, can send and receive coded commands from anywhere in the world, via a ridiculously redundant, high-speed computer network, mostly paid-for by the private sector. If that’s why we have the internet in the first place, how good can any of the information on it really be?
On the other hand, before you knock the wacko, tinfoil hat wearing, conspiracy theorists you find online, consider this:
At the moment, I’m building a modular analog synthesizer, from scratch, at home, in my spare time. If you’ve never heard of such a thing, a modular analog synthesizer is a kind of electronic musical instrument. The original Moog synthesizer was a modular analog synthesizer.
In essence, a modular analog synthesizer is a collection of electronic circuits that either produce an audio signal, or change an audio signal in some way, all mounted in a box so that you can easily configure them any way you like.
There are thousands of different circuits that produce or change an audio signal. The process of building a modular analog synthesizer involves building a collection of these circuits that will work together to create the palette of sounds that you want to hear. To build the circuit, it helps to have a schematic.
This is exactly the kind of project where the internet can be enormously helpful. I found thousands of schematics online. However, one of the circuits I want in my synthesizer is a white noise generator. White noise sounds like the wind when it’s filtered properly. It also adds breathiness to flute-like sounds and can even replace a snare drum hit when it’s gated right. I found about a dozen schematics for white noise generators online.
Several of these schematics came from very reliable sources, including colleges and universities. Apparently a lot of students have been assigned the task of building a white noise generator, which they use later in the semester as a piece of test equipment. Unfortunately, none of the white noise schematics I downloaded from these prestigious sources, worked, when I built them on a breadboard.
These were not complicated circuits. I know I had them wired exactly as shown on the schematic. I tried five different noise circuits, five different ways, and I could not get one of them to make a speaker go “Hisssssss.” like it was supposed to. Frustrated, I went back to the internet to look for some more schematics, and I found this one.
This is the only white noise circuit I’ve seen that uses an LM386 audio amplifier chip. That caught my attention because I’m familiar with the LM386, and just happened to have one lying around. I used one as the on-board amplifier on my “record-breaking guitar,” and lots of electronic toys use them because they are loud little amplifiers for their size.
The LM386 is a little noisy for a lot of musical applications, but for this particular one, noise is what we’re after, so I built it on the breadboard, and it worked. I was thrilled! I tweaked the design a bit to suit my application (mine will be the only white noise generator I’ve seen with “overdrive”). Once I had the noise circuit working the way I like it, I soldered it together on a piece of circuit-board.
I found that schematic by doing a Google “image” search. Google presented me with a page full of schematics, completely removed from the context into which they had been placed. Ecstatic to have finally completed a working noise generator, I became idly curious about why the designer of this circuit showed it connecting to a radio antenna rather than a speaker or an amplifier, so I visited the page where the image originated.
As I read the text on the page I discovered the reason why the designer of this circuit chose to attach a radio antenna to a circuit built for the audio frequency range. He observed that when he attached a loop antenna, instead of a speaker to this device, the white noise generator caused interference on his radio, throughout the AM band. He then reasoned, rightly, I think, that if this audio circuit caused interference to an AM radio signal, it must produce white noise that extends well beyond the audio frequency range, and that the LM386 must be capable of amplifying signals at frequencies far above those of normal human hearing, and well into the radio frequency range, something I did not know.
He installed this device in his home, attached to a large radio antenna, to scramble the Very Low Frequency and Low Frequency radio waves that he believes are being used, against his will, to reprogram his mind.
Apparently, a lot of people believe that radio waves can be used in this way, and that someone, or something, is using radio waves in ways that cause some people a lot of psychic distress. Some of these people line their walls and ceiling with foil, or wear tinfoil hats to block these unwanted signals. This syndrome is so common that it has become a stereotype, even an archetype. Who hasn’t heard of the tinfoil-hat-wearing crackpot?
This man chose a more rational, science-based approach to the problem of unwanted radio-waves than Reynolds Wrap, and instead, designed and built a very clever, original, device from common, easy to find parts. Myself, I’ve never met a radio-wave I didn’t like, and have never experienced the problems these unfortunate people describe, but I can attest to the fact that his machine really works.
If I had read his web page first, I probably would not have built the machine, but because I built his machine first, and it worked, I think he’s a pretty bright guy, and consider him a reliable source for technical information. After all, he solved my problem and taught me a thing or two about electronics in the process. If you, or anyone you know experiences distress caused by Low Frequency or Very Low Frequency radio waves, I recommend you try his device.
So, the next time you find yourself deriding the veracity of information you find on the internet, remember that the truth is stranger than you think, crazy people aren’t necessarily stupid. Then ask yourself what the hell you are doing online.
I hope you caught my performance in the belly dance tent on Saturday night at the Mateel’s Summer Arts and Music Festival, the weekend before last. With my partner Amy Gustin on Theremin, Patrick, who I just met earlier that day, and don’t even know his last name yet, on Djembe, and Yours Truly on electric didgeridoo, we rocked that belly dance tent! Didn’t we?
As a didgeridoo player, I often find myself playing at herb shops, tea houses and yoga retreats. I don’t get to play through a bumpin’ stereo PA, for drunk people who want to dance, nearly often enough. That was a real treat. I am grateful to the Mateel Community Center for giving me that opportunity.
The Mateel treated us really well, all weekend. The Mateel knows how to treat musicians, and they treated us right. We had a great time at the event. I especially appreciate the talent coordinator, who booked us to play both in the belly dance tent, after dark, and on the kids stage, early in the day. It’s hard to know what to do with a didgeridoo player, but they gave us a broad opportunity to connect with an audience.
We were a little surprised to discover that we were booked to perform The Big Picture on The Youth Stage, sandwiched between two clowns, and a puppet show. I’m not complaining, or even poking fun here. I appreciate the gig. It’s just that we never thought of The Big Picture as children’s entertainment.
We don’t have children ourselves, or even like them much. Entertaining children is just not something we think about. I enjoy living an R rated life. I prefer not to check my language, limit the scope of my humor, or refrain from abusing drugs, so most people know better than to let their kids anywhere near me.
As a musician, I consider it my role in life to encourage people to ingest mind-altering substances, and then to make them glad they did. I consider it noble work and I take it seriously, but even I understand that recreational drug use is not appropriate for small children.
Amy conceived of The Big Picture for her Sunday morning radio show, The Living Earth Connection which airs on KMUD at 9:30 AM on the fifth Sunday of the month. Amy’s show is usually quite intellectual, and requires a bit of concentration. It’s probably over the heads of half of the adults around here, let alone the children.
We got the idea of blending my psychedelic druggie space noise didgeridoo music, with her thought provoking ideas, after listening to one of our favorite albums: Albedo 0.39 by Vangelis. Specifically the final song on the album, coincidentally also titled Albedo 0.39.
For this song, Vangelis found a clever way of adding a vocal track to his, otherwise instrumental, synthesizer music, without having to write lyrics. On Albedo 0.39, we hear a soft spoken English gentleman, with a sonorous voice and excellent diction, recite a list of statistics about Planet Earth. These include the length of the day and year according to two different measurements, the Earth’s mass, density, diameter, distance from the sun, speed, escape velocity, etc, concluding with “Albedo 0.39.”
Albedo is the percentage of light striking a non-luminous object that gets reflected back out into space. The Earth’s albedo is 0.39, or at least it was in 1973, when Albedo 0.39 came out. In other words, 39% of the sunlight that strikes the Earth, gets reflected back out into space. With the poles melting, and the Asian Brown Cloud spreading, the Earth’s albedo may have changed in the intervening years.
Swirling around this vocal track, we hear one of Vangelis’ trippiest analog synthesizer soundscapes. I always liked that piece because it makes you glad that you got good and high before you listened to it, and even though you were totally wasted, you still learned something.
We assume that most KMUD listeners are already baked at 9:30AM on Sunday morning. We thought we might try the same approach with the radio show. We would combine something over your head, with something for your head. That was the inspiration for The Big Picture.
We thought it came out pretty well, and the audience let us know that they liked it, so we decided to take it on the road, and to perform it live. That’s how we found ourselves on The Youth Stage at Summer Arts and Music Festival, performing a piece designed for KMUD’s wake-and-bake listeners, to small children who were not stoned. I learned a lot about children’s entertainment that weekend, and I got to witness some great performances by some really talented artists:
A OK The Clown devised a great interactive game that illustrates the problem of Global Climate Change. Riding a very tall unicycle, AOK pretended to be the atmosphere, while a circle of eager children surrounding him, pelted him with rubber balls, pompoms and hula hoops that symbolized the smoke, smog, and other airborne pollution that contribute to Global Climate Change. Frantically pedaling his unicycle, A OK endured a relentless shitstorm of hurled objects that brilliantly symbolized the assault on nature waged by industrial society.
Following A OK, came Mickey The Clown, an old school circus clown who was as kindly and gentle as he was entertaining. Mickey had a great song about suburban sprawl and habitat loss, told from the perspective of a frog named Freako. Freako the Frog was so catchy that I still can’t get it our of my head.
Then came our drugged out head trip, The Big Picture, with Theremin solos. After us, the Kinetic Paranormal Society Puppet Troupe took the stage. This very talented puppet troupe included a band, great puppets and terrific voice actors. Their, very funny, production also had an environmental message as well, but we never heard the end of it because we had to go get lunch before they shut down the kitchen.
Environmental education seemed to be the overarching theme of all of the acts that performed on The Youth Stage, including The Big Picture. I have mixed feelings about this. On one hand, I think it’s great that clowns and puppets are educating children about environmental issues while their parents are getting smashed on overpriced beer.
On the other hand, I think, “Can’t a kid throw stuff at a clown without turning it into some kind of learning experience?” Today’s children are going to have to deal with the consequences of environmental crises, that they had no part in creating, for the rest of their lives. Do they really need to be lectured about it by a sock puppet when they are four years old? The parents need lectures not the kids.
That’s why we created The Big Picture, to lecture adults about what a fucking mess they’ve made of the planet, and where we went wrong as a society. It’s a tough message, but it’s easier to take when you’re stoned. I don’t know what the kids thought of us.
I don’t really see how you can educate kids about the environment without implicating their parents. If kids today knew how stupid, crazy and wrong their parents were, and how much damage they’ve already done to the planet, those kids would run screaming back to their mother, claw their way back up her vagina and into the womb with the admonition “Fuck you! You stupid, selfish, irresponsible idiot! Now quit fucking around and clean up this mess, and I am not coming out until you do!”
That’s what happens to kids who spend any time at all around me, before long they cuss like sailors and hate their parents. We’re happy to perform The Big Picture for birthday parties, and children’s events of all kinds, for children of all ages. You provide the drugs.
What I Bent Over My Summer Vacation
If you’ve followed this blog for a while, you’ll remember that I went kind of gonzo about circuit-bending this past Spring. After about half a dozen posts, I realized that not many of my readers could relate to my interest in rewiring children’s electronic toys. So, I dumbed down my posts to encourage the idiots among you to keep reading, but that doesn’t mean that I’ve lost interest in making music with creatively modified, cast-off electronic toys.
Quite the contrary, over the summer I created a number of circuit-bent instruments from electronic toys I found in our local thrift stores. While not every toy I bent, worked out as well as I hoped, enough of them survived surgery that I now have an array of amusing looking, capable, and unique sounding of synthesizers at my disposal.
While most electronic toys designed for children are nearly bullet-proof, they all share one weakness. One substance has probably stopped more electronic toys from ever working again than any other. This substance corrupts them from the inside, like kryptonite does to Superman. That substance is pee.
According to my extensive research, fully half of all electronic toys found in thrift stores, contain pee. Sure, they’ve cleaned the toy off. You can’t see any pee on it, but set it down in front of your dog or cat. They’ll let you know. Of course, when you open the toy, you’ll find it. Usually, it leaks through the keyboard, or the buttons, and directly onto the little membrane switches beneath them. This causes keys not to play, and functions not to work. Sometimes you can fix these problems with a thorough cleaning, sometimes not.
The worst case pee scenario happens when pee gets all over the main circuit board. Such was the case with my beloved Bratz drum bra. The cups of the bra channeled cat pee directly onto the main circuit board where it dried to an oily, foul smelling film and proceeded to corrode everything. Despite that, the device continued to work, at least long enough for me to add a pitch bend control and a line out, which actually made it into a great sounding instrument. Since then, however, it works only intermittently.
Now that the sun has disappeared behind the hillside, leaving my photovoltaic panels unkissed by sunlight until next March, and thus bringing my summer soldering season to an end, I’ve begun exploring the musical potential I’ve unleashed in these newly altered devices. Allow me to introduce you to a couple of them:
Introducing; My Circuit-Bent Casio ML1
This amazing little instrument pleases me greatly. Stock, it actually makes some pretty good sounds, including a decent imitation of a piano, and it still works as originally intended. However I’ve added a matrix of touch sensors which allow me to directly stimulate the electronic “brain” of the ML1, releasing its previously untapped potential for composing original music of apparently infinite variety. I enjoy collaborating with the ML1, a relatively young composer, and very much a product of the digital age. As a composer, the ML1 speaks to the age in which we live.
I titled our first collaboration 13 Minutes at the End of Time. The modified ML1 generated every note, phrase, rhythm and noise heard in this piece. My input came only in the form of touching the sensors that I added. Touching any two of these sensors at the same time, creates a new connection within the ML1’s electronic “brain”, causing it to “think outside the box” with surprising originality.
Like many young composers, the modified ML1 favors quick tempos and complex poly-rhythms, but it balances them with subtle textures and sustained notes that float serenely over the fray. I think this piece reflects the relentless sensory overload and chaos of our wired lifestyle. At 13 minutes, it runs a little longer than the typical modern attention span, but some of us still know how to listen. 13 Minutes at the End of Time also provides the perfect ambiance to induce stress into any situation.
Pretty in Pink
I found this pink “girly” toy keyboard at a thrift store around here. Although it had a few splashes of pee inside it, it cleaned up easily with no damage to the electronics. This toy says “Starring Me” on the front, but it looks identical to this “Barbie” toy keyboard bent by Bogus Noise UK, and immortalized in this video. I presume I have the generic version of the same toy.
I took a different approach to this toy than did the braceletted British bender who bent the bejeezus out of that Barbie brand Bontempi. I started with the ubiquitous pitch-bend mod. This is one of the easiest, and most universal bends that you can make on an electronic toy, especially the cheap ones.
Almost all of theses little noise-making electronic toys, use a single resistor to set the speed of the central processor. If you change the resistance of that resistor, you can make the whole machine operate faster or slower, which in turn, raises or lowers the pitch of all the noises it makes. You will usually find this resistor located right next to the black blob in the center of the circuit board, often labeled “R1”.
If you touch this resistor at both ends, the toy will usually go up or down in pitch dramatically, or stop working all together. If you replace that resistor with a potentiometer, you can use that potentiometer to sweep the pitch of the sounds up or down. This opens up a lot of new potential sounds for you to exploit.
In this pink girly keyboard, I used one of the purple ornamental flowers as the knob to adjust the pitch. The three switches on the lower left, allow me to switch even more resistance into the circuit, which allows me to play the keyboard in four distinct registers, with the pitch-bend knob active in all of them. This four-speed pitch-bend mod extends the toys range by nearly an octave above, and several octaves below, it’s original voice.
I made one other major modification to the sound of this pink girly keyboard. I added a passive ring modulator. A passive ring modulator adds a very weird kind of distortion, and it allows you to use another signal to change the harmonic profile of that distortion in very strange ways. Q Reed Ghazala shared this schematic of a passive ring modulator on his Anti-Theory website.
It looked pretty simple to me, consisting of two transformers and four diodes. Even I could handle that. For the secondary, or “Y” signal, (that modifies the original or “X” signal) I built an analog square-wave oscillator from an 8-pin “555” chip, relying on the instructions I found in the Crème DeMentia “Bending Buddy” comic book. Everyone interested in circuit-bending should check out the Crème Dementia kits and comics.
Both circuits fit easily on a 2” square piece of circuit-board, and inside the toy. The “Y” oscillator has an independent on/off switch with an indicator LED, and a pitch control knob. Another knob blends the “Y” oscillator with the “X” signal. You can see the switch and indicator light between the two purple flowers on the upper right, and the control knobs located to the immediate right of the keyboard.
I displaced one of the ornamental purple flowers to make space for a quarter inch phone jack that serves as a line-level output, but I re-purposed the flower as the pitch-control knob. I added three tiny LEDs to the handle, to make my new instrument extra pretty, an amber one in the center, flanked by two red ones, because I had them lying around. The red ones came out of a small power inverter that burned out, and the amber one came from a disposable led tea light, with a dead battery.
How does it sound? Th passive ring modulator give this toy a very biting and aggressive sound, reminiscent of a an old Farfisa organ through a fuzz box. The analog oscillator feeding the “Y” oscillator dramatically alters the harmonic character of the sound in real time, with a twist of a knob, not unlike an analog synthesizer, and imparts an authentically analog Theremin-like sound on it’s own.
I composed this rather abstract, obtuse, but somehow endearing piece entirely with the newly modified pink girly toy keyboard. It reminds me of some of the electronic music popular in sci-fi movies of the sixties.
As you can see my enthusiasm for circuit-bending has not waned. I hope at least a few of you enjoyed this look at a couple of my new instruments. I built these instruments to force me to think about music in different ways, and I hope this approach will lead to some interesting and hopefully compelling music in the coming months. Stay tuned.