If you watched the excellent new Why We Bleep Podcast (video) interview with Tom Whitwell of Music Thing Modular, you may, right at the 50-minute mark, have heard Tom talk about a little MIDI device he prototyped with me in mind. I thought I’d share some images and some context, by way of saying thanks to Tom.
I’d been asking online (via Twitter and Facebook mostly) for some time as to why there isn’t a super small, portable MIDI device that has faders, pots, and endless knobs. I’d located various DIY projects with varying degrees of clarity in their instructions, and fixated for awhile on one, the k4b4, that I found on a Japanese website (picture below in case the site ever goes dead), but it appeared to be sold out; nothing else seemed to come close to what I had imagined. And even this one lacks faders:
Height wasn’t of particular concern, but I figured something roughly the length and width of a credit card or small mobile phone would be perfect. I wanted something I could keep in my backpack without ever having to consider its volume or heft.
Then Tom got in touch. Let’s start with the finished object, before getting to some process materials. This is the top and bottom view.
The length is just under 4 inches, and the width is just over 1.75 inches.
And this is it fit snug in one of the smallest Pelican cases, along with a USB cable:
Tom ran a few PCB (printed circuit board) designs by me in rapid succession, with different combinations and permutations of controls. Ultimately, I decided that the pairing of pots and endless knobs was more important than buttons, since I’d often be using it with something like a laptop. Keyboards have more than enough buttons.
A little after-dinner experimentation, making some headway amid our collective new abnormal. When I post things here I myself recorded, I tag them studio journal. Acoustic guitar through randomized sequences of gates. Took awhile to sort a good BPM to align with the strumming: too fast and the chord ended too late; too slow and the gating ended before the chord fully rang out. This is a little first-time experiment with the new Torii script (version 0.3.0) by Steven Noreyko, running on a Fates (aka an open-source Monome Norns port). A Zoom H4n served as the microphone, and that’s a little Boombotix REX speaker in the foreground.
And that is the first time I’ve used my toe to trigger a button on the Fates. I originally wrote “my toe to trigger the Fates” but that sounded ominous
After today’s Leaving Records event, I needed some late-night guitar/Norns/Grid time. (Fates, not Norns, but you know.)
Update: Someone on Twitter asked what these things are. The little hexagonal box on the left is a little speaker. I need a louder small, portable amplifier. “Louder” and “small, portable” generally work in inverse proportion to each other along a single axis, so I need to choose where on that axis I want to be. The thing with all the lights in rows is a Monome Grid. The Grid is a controller that does nothing on its own, but lots of different things when connected to a laptop or other devices. The little black box to its right with a tiny screen is a Fates, which is a take on the open-source Monome Norns. It’s the sort of device that makes the Grid sing (or perhaps vice-versa). It runs various scripts and engines that create and/or transform sound. The script I’m running here, called Cranes, lets me loop in real time the sound of the guitar being fed into the Fates. That’s an acoustic guitar in the foreground, and the little black wire stuck onto it is a microphone I borrowed from a friend (given what’s going on in the world, maybe I can return it in a few months). The setup is too quiet. I need a preamp, or maybe to run the microphone through a reverb pedal before sending to the Fates.
The sun’s down, and the city is quiet. Quieter than usual, for obvious reasons. Hunkered down, you find online connections more important than usual. You download the alpha version of a new piece of audio software, install it, and take on the quiet, a few looped notes at a time.
I started taking weekly guitar lessons a couple years ago, despite which I haven’t been good about tracking my experience much here, even though I spend a chunk of my time sending my guitar through my synthesizer.
Some recent guitar-related thoughts:
Thing that came out of my mouth in guitar class: “The fretboard is a conspiracy, but I’m figuring it out.”
Sorting out the means to name a chord I just happen to have played on my guitar makes me feel like an amateur lepidopterist identifying butterflies out in the wild.
Due to guitar practice, the main earworms in my life are whatever brief public-domain melodies in my textbook I’ve been playing for a half hour or hour straight recently.
Generally I can’t use my synthesizer late in the evening, because it ratchets up my brain, making it difficult for me to sleep. Guitar, in contrast, I’ve been able to play right up until bedtime, and then nonetheless done fine falling asleep. The recently added complexity is I’ve begun studying modes, and (1) modes are really enjoyable to work through and learn, but (2) for some reason they get my brain going like my synthesizer does.
Marc Weidenbaum founded the website Disquiet.com in 1996 at the intersection of sound, art, and technology, and since 2012 has moderated the Disquiet Junto, an active online community of weekly music/sonic projects. He has written for Nature, Boing Boing, The Wire, Pitchfork, and NewMusicBox, among other periodicals. He is the author of the 33 1⁄3 book on Aphex Twin’s classic album Selected Ambient Works Volume II. Read more about his sonic consultancy, teaching, sound art, and work in film, comics, and other media
• February 5, 2020: The first session of the 15-week course I teach at the Academy of Art about the role of sound in the media landscape.
• April 15, 2020: A chapter on the Disquiet Junto ("The Disquiet Junto as an Online Community of Practice," by Ethan Hein) appears in the forthcoming book The Oxford Handbook of Social Media and Music Learning (Oxford University Press), edited by Stephanie Horsley, Janice Waldron, and Kari Veblen. (Details at oup.com.)
• December 13, 2020: This day marks the 24th anniversary of Disquiet.com.
• January 7, 2021: This day marks the 9th anniversary of the start of the Disquiet Junto music community.
• There are entries on the Disquiet Junto in the forthcoming book The Music Production Cookbook: Ready-made Recipes for the Classroom (Oxford University Press), edited by Adam Patrick Bell. Ethan Hein wrote one, and I did, too.
• At least two live group concerts by Disquiet Junto members in the San Francisco Bay Area are in the works for 2020.
• I have liner notes for a musician's solo album and an essay in a book about an art event due out. I'll announce as the release dates come into focus.
• The Disquiet Junto series of weekly communal music projects explore constraints as a springboard for creativity and productivity. There is a new project each Thursday afternoon (California time), and it is due the following Monday at 11:59pm: disquiet.com/junto.
Since January 2012, the Disquiet Junto has been an ongoing weekly collaborative music-making community that employs creative constraints as a springboard for creativity. Subscribe to the announcement list (each Thursday), listen to tracks by participants from around the world, read the FAQ, and join in.