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Scientific and artful explorations
of analog and digital sound.

Modcan modular synth modules

Recently, I’ve become obsessed with the idea that I need to build a modular synth. After working so much on the new Mankind Is Obsolete album, and taking on more and more scoring and sound design jobs, it has become more apparent to me that I do have a pure love for sound creation. I think a modular system would be a great tool – and I can essentially mold exactly what I want out of it. More info to come, but for now check out Modcan.

(Pictured – Daft Punk’s modular system that was ordered for the Tron Legacy soundtrack, one of my main inspirations for composing and sound design).

9 ways that you can immediately improve your sound

We are all busy people; whether you play in the spare moments that you have after you get home from work or if you are a full time professional musician, sometimes there never seems enough time in a day to really get an edge on improving our sounds. Here are some things you can do to get ahead in the world of beautiful sound.

1. Practice, practice, practice!

It doesn’t matter if it’s for 5 minutes or 5 hours, make sure you show up to your instrument of choice at least once a day (preferably more). In my own experience, one of the best things you can do to improve the quality and tone of the sound that you create is by having a daily practice. The more disciplined about this the better results you will get.

During your practice, make sure to use a metronome and keep a log. In fact I could write many more articles on that subject alone! By using a metronome you will become more solid with your sense of rhythm. This is especially for guitarists who have a habit of speeding up (I’m definitely not innocent to this). A log will help you keep tabs on how much progress you have made.

After only a couple of days of practice, you will start seeing and hearing immediate results.

2. Seek out and play with other people

This is just as important as as number one (in fact I would say more so, except that if you don’t practice most people will not want to play with you) – playing with as many skilled players as you possibly can is hands down one of the best things that you can do to drastically improve almost every aspect of your playing. Bonus points if you seek out players that are vastly better than you.

One day, long ago I was hanging out outside of a coffee shop in Long beach and happened to hear some of the most amazing acoustic guitar I’ve ever heard in my life. I immediately went to my car to grab my guitar. I played with him for almost 3 hours that night and learned a lot.

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How to automate your effect changes and more for your show with MIDI

Are you sick of tap dancing on your effect/stomp boxes while you are playing a show, when you would much rather be focusing on playing and performing? In this post, I will attempt to explain how you can literally automate all of your effect changes for your live show.

I’ll draw from my own experience in how I automated all of my effect changes for an entire live set’s worth of songs.

(Note: this can apply to any instrument, even voice, as long as your effects have a method of being controlled via MIDI commands.)

First thing is first: do you need to automate? I’m personally a fan of the different effects one can acheive when using signal processing and effects on my guitar signal. For most of the bands I play in, I have a different set of effects per song. I sometimes like to switch between different channels of my guitar amp as well, depending on what part I’m playing. Basically, a good way to determine this is if you have to switch multiple effects and amp channels on and off at the same time. It is absolutely possible to do manually, but you literally have to plan out your effect changes. For me, it’s no fun having to think about the part that is coming up and prepare to switch over in steps (ex., because I have to switch delay 1 off, switch on delay 2 and some reverb and change my amp channel to clean in a matter of a couple of seconds or faster). If you are dealing with all of this there is a big chance that you could benefit from automating your effect changes.

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10 things you shouldn’t do at a gig

As a guitarist, I’ve definitely played my fair share of live gigs. I’ve clocked anywhere between 400-600 shows (and I hope to make that number much larger). When playing shows, everything moves faster and faster until it’s your time to play, and at that point, there are a number of things that you shouldn’t have done to make sure that the show flows as smoothly as possible.

1. Bring only one guitar

I used to bring only one guitar to my shows. My thought at the time was “I love my guitar and wouldn’t want to have to ever play another one” so I figured that as long as I’ve put a new set of strings on fairly recently everything would be fine. This was quite possibly one of the stupidest lines of thinking I could have at the time! With that mindset, I played many shows where I would be praying to the gods of rock that my strings don’t break. And of course, the shows where my strings did break, thus forcing me to readjust my parts and playing on the fly (not to mention having the entire guitar kicked out of tune by a quarter step).

2. Forget to tune

I am OCD when it comes to tuning my guitar. There have been countless times on the road (in fact, most times) where I would be watching the other bands play before or after our set, and invariably, when something wasn’t sounding good, it was either the guitar or bass that were out of tune. At that point, the singer doesn’t really have a solid base to jump off of so that invariably, there is a lot of crappiness coming out of the speakers. If most guitar players kept their instruments in tune this wouldn’t happen nearly as much. I tune between every song, and even during parts that I’m not playing. If I’m super out of tune I will opt to tune my instrument rather then play.

3. Bring only one instrument cable

This is another big no-no. I cannot count the number of times where an instrument cable has crapped out on me (or my bandmates). The first thing to always check when you have a rig emergency (eg., your sound disappears), after checking to make sure you didn’t lose power, is to check your instrument cables. It is now second nature to me – as it should be for you! As well, having extra cables on hand will give you points especially if you have to lend it out to a headlining act (if you’re an opener).

Speaking of interesting side stories about opening up for bigger bands, one just popped into my head. MKIO used to carry our own sound system on the road for crazy situations. It wasn’t much, but it serves as a great emergency backup if for whatever reason the venue doesn’t have a sound system ready to go for the show. We were opening up for 16 Volt in Sacramento, CA. We show up and they really had nothing there in terms of live sound support. They did manage to get powered main speakers into the club, but nothing to mix with. So we essentially saved the show by having this on hand – we set our system up and helped run sound for the night (in addition to performing), and got wads of points from 16 Volt, with whom we partied with afterwards. I feel like they became very fond of us that night.

I cannot tell you how many times having a backup have saved our asses on the road. On to the next item…

4. Play too loud

Now this is subjective, and also depends on the type of music that you play; but in general, make sure to keep your amplifier volume at a nominal level. Especially if the type of band that you are playing with has a lot of quiet, subtle parts, you don’t want to drown out the music and singer. Also, keep in mind that you are on a stage. That will essentially direct your speaker cabinet pretty much in direct line of sight with the audience’s ears. You might not be able to hear yourself as well, but trust me, if your audience hears your guitar more than the vocals they will hate you for that! This is especially true if you play in a mostly electronic music based band – I went out on the road with Android Lust last summer with my regular MKIO rig (which is a huge tube amp with 4×12 speaker cab) and I think that next time out with them I’ll definitely be bringing a small combo amp to the gig. But if you’re playing punk rock, noise music, or even if your goal is to have a loud sound, then by all means turn up. MOGWAI is a great example of this – they play instrumental post punk indie music and their shows are LOUD – but the sounds are a beauty to behold.

5. Stand in one spot, unmoving, on a huge stage

This is another pet peeve of my own – again, touring on the road has showed me this time and time again, if you are just going to stand there like a statue, looking straight down at your guitar and not interact with the audience at all, you might as well just stay in your bedroom. Seriously! When playing live, you have a stage, people are looking at YOU, and listening to YOU – give them something that they’ll never forget. Lose yourself in the music – forget everything else, and let your body get into it. Make your instrument an extension of your self.

Feel the music.

6. Arrive late for a sound check

This is always a really awkward one – being a little late is all right, but one to two hours is kind of unnerving. Your best bet is to arrive early. Not only does the show run smoother, but the promoter and sound engineers will remember you. Invariably, especially when on the road, you will run into bumps in the road – but being on time communicates respect and invariably makes everyone feel good.

7. Practice

You shouldn’t have to practice at a gig – this is your time to shine! (Though make sure to warm your fingers / voice / limbs up for the show). Make sure to spend at least a little time every day practicing your instrument. Be very disciplined about this – and when it comes time to play, you won’t have to think. You only will have to feel the music.

Our physical existence sometimes gets in the way of what we are trying to express. Especially our muscles – I’ve noticed that for myself, if I don’t keep a daily practice when I play shows I am focusing too much on making sure I’m hitting the right notes. I make sure to play a little bit every day so i don’t have to worry come show time. It is the difference between being good and passible to being great and exceptional. If your entire band practices their own instruments, there is a good chance that you guys/girls will perform exceptionally well.

8. Not have a backup of your backup

In my experience with electronic rock bands which rely on technology to supplement their show, these bands many times rely on electronic backing tracks. I can’t count the times that these systems have crashed. If your show is being run from a laptop, bring an extra laptop. And have a backup for your backup. No joke! When we (MKIO) went to Algeria, Air France decided that our $3000 rack with our Digi 002 and wireless in ear system was worth losing. Lucky I brought a backup – an Avid M-Box in my suitcase was able to replace the Digi-002, but Tash had no ears. I’ve seen a popular band have to ditch playing their entire set because their iPod broke.

This also goes for anything and everything else. I’ve mentioned it above but extra cables, tubes, guitars and amps are always a good thing to have on hand.

9. Get wasted before the show

In my opinion, it never is a good time to get wasted – but if you are going to pound those beers, make sure to do it after your performance, not before. I’ve played with people who were wasted and it’s not fun. Everything goes out the window in terms of performance and vibe when you have a player stumbling all over the stage, slurring vocal lines and fubbing notes. Though if that is your ‘thing’, then go for it.

10. Not have fun

Lastly, remember that this is music. Stop taking yourself so seriously!! As an audience member, people are much more comfortable when YOU are comfortable on stage. The audience will know when you feel nervous. The audience will know when you are trying too hard. Relax, feel the music. Be yourself. Try to just channel the music as much as possible. Turn off the little voice in the back of your head that is being too critical. Close your eyes and feel it. There is only so much time we have on this planet, and if you are lucky enough to have a stage, you owe it to the audience to put on a stellar performance. Really, NOTHING matters except the part where you get to share and create something magical with an audience. Don’t waste that by thinking about yourself. Let all the practice that you have done assure yourself that your muscles will do the right thing when called on.

If you’ve done everything in this list, then you are (IMO) well on your way to become a well rounded live performer. There are a lot more things that I didn’t cover here, but this is a great place to start. Until next time, thanks for reading another Hacking The Sound article. Please pass on to your friends if you’ve gotten anything out of this.

PS. make sure to sign up for the Hacking The Sound mailing list to receive updates and future product offerings. I promise that I won’t harass you. ;)

The importance of being in (and out) of tune

This might come as a surprise to some, but the most basic quality of good sound I can think of is the nature and physics of being in tune, and the manipulation of that boundary to create tension and release.

Western music, for the most part, is a play of different sounds that resonate in both primary and relative physical realms. I say primary because two notes played together that have the same or relative frequency (for example, on an equal tempered piano the A below middle C is tuned to 440hz; the A that is an exact octave below that is 220hz, etc) – those notes resonate together on the same primary (fundamental) frequencies. Notes that resonate on a relative wavelength to those fundamental frequencies create different tonal colors in a way that creates minor, major, or indifferent feelings or emotions. The only way that any emotion can be conveyed whatsoever by using notes together (otherwise known as music) is if those notes are played in tune with each other. Once you have the ability to stay in tune, I think it is then up to the discretion of the player/musician to take the instrument out of tune in subtle ways to create variations in sound. Honestly, I think most people would get bored if they listened to music with little to no variation (though that is just my opinion!). For singers, this is a powerful technique to really create emotional impact by using their vocal chords to not only create sound that is in tune, but to oscillate that sound to accent different musical parts. This technique is called vibrato, and it is a natural physical component of beautiful sound.

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Manipulating guitar and synth through the Zvex Fuzz Factory

Noise. It’s one of my favorite things in the world, as it is the embodiment of all that is chaos, and all that is life. From whence we came, we will ultimately go back into the noise.

Or something or other.

Now, my favorite thing to do is to play with noise. And the ZVEX Fuzz Factory fuzz pedal makes it a very joyous activity indeed! I don’t like playing with noise for noise sake, though – I try to create sounds that are more harmonious and musical in nature. A lot of noise enthusiasts like to just create atonal noise – I can definitely respect this art, but I’m always looking for a melody or a tone no matter what I do.

The first example is a clip of me playing my PRS Custom 22 guitar into my Fuzz Factory. I’m actually strumming a chord and then twisting the right knob on the Fuzz factory to match the harmonic frequency of the chord. As you can see, I had a lot of fun mangling the sounds of my guitar.

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Hacking your guitar sound: amps, effects, and signal routing

Over the course of many years, I’ve gone through many different amp, effect and speaker configurations.

I’d like to say that I’m an expert now in terms of how one can set up their signal chain, but I believe that I’m still most definitely a novice when it comes to signal routing. Nevertheless, I would love to share what has worked for me up until this point.

It all starts with your guitar – it needs to be in tune and intonated correctly. The second you start going out of tune, at least in my mind, is the second that you start losing the ability to control your tone. After a long period of getting to know your instrument, you can then play it in such a way to make certain parts sound ‘out of tune’ to create a a natural effect of sound – vibrato (oscillation of pitch). This effect actually mimics the human voice (though I’m sure not a lot of human voices can pull off the amazing feats that David Gilmour pulls off in his guitar solos!). Your hands, your technique, the wood that makes up your guitar and your pickups is the first place where your sound starts. Better make it good.

Basically, the entire philosophy that I’ve ever had in terms of signal routing is a philosophy in cleanliness of tone and simplicity. When I first started playing electric guitar, I used a Fender Prosonic 60 watt combo amp. Instead of using the natural, beautiful gain channel that the amp comes with, I went out and bought a Tech21 SansAmp preamp. Kind of ridiculous – as from that point on I was always falling victim to a tremendous amounts of buzz, and general tone sucking. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why my sound sucked so bad.

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More fun with Juno – Experimenting with my Roland Juno 6, part 2

This is the second part in my series of experimentations with one Roland Juno 6 – an incredible Polysynth amde in the early 80s.

I truly feel that i still have so much to learn when it comes to synthesizers. I’m am relatively new to the world of hardware synths – the juno is my first really hardware analog synth, and even still it isn’t a ‘true’ polysynth because it uses DCOs to generate its’ waveforms. These are digital controlled oscillators. A true hardware analog polysynth (meaning a synth with more than one voice) that uses VCOs for sound generators are a lot of money – I’m talking anywhere from $2000-$3000 just to start. Other than that, there is the world of modular synths which is a world that I’m still waiting to jump into once I have the cash. In that world, the sky is the limit in terms of what kind of sounds I want to create and/or mangle.

Today I want to continue my explorations of my Juno. I think I will start by trying to emulate real world sounds by using subtractive synthesis. I feel like that would be a good thing to practice today. To start with, I’m going to attempt emulating the sound of a violin.

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Hacking acoustic guitar sounds using analog delay

I love me some delay. I especially love me some delay that has the capability to produce endless, swirly, variable arrays of audio signal. What’s fun about delay is that fact that it is very easy to create soundscapes with very simple instruments.

Case in point, I use the Line 6 M13 for my live rig. It is a digital stomp box modeler made by one of the best digital-analog emulation companies ever. I like this unit because it introduces almost complete complete programmability into pretty much any sort of effect that one could dream up. No, it’s not a fragile piece of vintage gear but it comes pretty close in terms of sound. In a live environment, there is not much difference in sound (though that’s not to say that next time out I’ll have a complete analog/digital hybrid rig). But I digress; let us get back to the topic at hand! The M13 itself has a lot of great sounding analog delays emulations available. In a live setting it is a no brainer to set it up to sync with the music (using click tracks or tap tempo) and manipulate the delay mix and feedback rate with one or two foot controllers. Today, though, I wanted to perform another sound experiment.

Before I get to that, however, I just wanted to mention that in addition to regular practice (if you do play an instrument), it is also important to practice the art of getting good sound. Sure, you can play a million notes per second, or you can solo well, or you can be a good rhythm player – but none of that really matters unless you sound good. Sounding good takes practice, but not in the typical sense. You have to be willing to experiment – to twist knobs, to adjust your technique. Integrating the practice of listening is one of the most important parts of playing music. Perhaps you want to emulate the sound of classical middle eastern tones? Go listen and replicate with your instrument of choice.

So, every day, sit down with your instrument and really get acquainted with it. Rediscover it. Challenge yourself to coax something new and truly original out of it! Part of that art lays in the valley where digital and analog meet.

I recently acquired a Moogerfooger MF-104M effect pedal. For those not familiar with this unit, it is Moog’s newest analog delay pedal. I absolutely needed to have it like I needed to breathe, like I needed to sleep. So after using close to the last of my credit, I picked it up. Close to broke now, I am luxuriating in the tones that this unit has to offer. The reason why I absolutely had to have this unit is two-fold: 1) Great analog delay. That’s right – pure bucket brigade goodness. I’ll get into more detail about what bucket brigade chips offer (if you don’t know), but suffice to say the sounds that this unit is capable of producing is simply wondrous. 2) Moog managed to integrate full MIDI capabilities into this pedal, so that the analog delay parameters are fully programmable. This could potentially unlock a lot of doors in terms of sonic possibilities. For me, this is basically the holy grail of effect pedals.

My ultimate plan (at least when I bought this unit) is to replace or supplement my digital effect modeling unit (Line 6 M13) with this. The following are some clips of me experimenting with this unit. I’m playing my Takimine acoustic guitar straight into the input, which is going through my standard signal chain.

For the following clip, I have the delay set on the short delay setting, with the time knob set about 3 o’clock. The mix knob is at 12 o’clock. It is a pretty standard delay sound.

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Experimenting with my Roland Juno 6, part 1

This is part one of a multi-part series on the infamous Roland Juno-6 synthesizer. As well; this is the first post ever on this blog – I’m happy to say that it has been a dream come true to finally be able to set this up, as I’ve been wanting to have a place where I could share my sonic experiments with other people that may be interested.

I am the recent owner of a new (well, used.. but new to me) Roland Juno 6. It is in good condition, and has quickly turned into one of my most favorite sound toys. This post is the first in a series of explorations that I will be embarking with this fine piece of musical gear. Below, you will find various soundcloud samples that I will be recording via my project studio. Said studio consists of a pair of Chandler Little Devil pres, into the A/D of my Burl B2 Bomber, which will then get recorded by Pro Tools.

After about 10 minutes, I have everything ready to go. The Juno is plugged in, my gear is switched on and I’m ready to record. One thing to note is that I am setting my preamps at their lowest settings; thereby I have a good baseline to go by. Once that is set, I can creep up the levels on the preamps so that my Burl shows that I’m hitting between -5 to -10db on it’s meter.

I will start off with a saw waveform on the Juno and will attempt to get sort of an initialized sound out of the unit (not to say that it will sound bad.. It is almost impossible to make this synth sound bad!). In this sample, I started at middle C and dropped it down by 4 octaves. The waveform looks really interesting on that! This is part of what I love about working with digital audio: the fact that I can literally see the waveform as it’s happening. Watch and listen!

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