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December 17, 2008

Filed under: music»tools»effects

The Other Kind of Loop

I enjoyed writing about the Loop Junky and DOD Envelope pedals from my collection last month. I think I'll keep doing it every now and then. I don't own any really amazing or exotic hardware, but I find that there's a shortage of decent commentary on non-boutique effects. Most of the discussion on them is at places like Harmony Central, a site that illustrates both the best and worst of crowd-sourcing, and could provide months of mockery (sample quote: "Even though i just tried it out in the store i can tell that it's not reliable." Someone get that man an engineering job!).

So if we're going to add to the Internet's collective wisdom on entry-level stompboxes, why not start with the one pedal that makes no noise on its own, that few people would consider, but should be one of the building blocks for any compulsive pedal-purchaser: the Boss LS-2.

The LS-2 is basically a foot-switchable, floor-mounted, battery-powered mixer. It's hard to understand the appeal of such a thing until you've used one--what's the point of a pedal that just connects other pedals? Leave the mixing to the sound guy! But the LS-2 isn't really just a mixer. It's a swiss army knife for musicians. It solves problems. And when you buy effects on a budget, you usually find yourself with problems that need solving.

Say you've got a pedal that's got a fantastic tone, but it creates a dip in volume: leave it running through the LS-2 with the mix gain up, and swap its loop in instead of activating it directly. Alternately, you've got a pedal that sounds great when cranked, but you want it to have that sound at unity gain: the LS-2 can act as a trim for it. Noisy pedals can be isolated in the same way. Your distortion (or other effect) doesn't have a wet/dry mix control: now it does. You want to be able to bring in multiple effects with one step, mixed together at arbitrary volumes: no problem, it can do that too. Multiple instruments into one amp (switched or mixed), selective multi-amp output, muting continous effects without halting them, or just quick volume presets, it's a versatile device. The one thing I haven't been able to figure out so far is how to get it to swap a pedal from one place to another in a signal chain, but it's probably possible somehow.

Of course, you can also use the LS-2 for its original purpose of routing signals from one place to another, and that's a valuable education in its own right. After all, having lots of effects is easy--it just requires too much money. But using them effectively means learning how to order them, and how to bring them in and out of the chain for a musical purpose. That's a lot harder to learn, yet it's a skill that's emphasized over and over again in audio. Unlike video or graphics production, which (in my opinion) stresses the composition of distinct elements as layers, audio is about basic operations processed in series and parallel, resulting in a final mix. Experiment with the LS-2, and you'll have a head start on thinking about production and synthesis.

My favorite routing use for the LS-2 is as pedalboard master controller. The ability to swap entire effects loops in and out basically gives you the instant complexity of multieffects patches combined with the flexibility and accessibility of individual stompboxes. For example, I used to run the MXR Bass DI+ and a chorus on the A loop, and a second distortion into an envelope on the B loop. By turning the pedals inside each loop on and off, and then switching between them, I could get from clean sounds to combinations instantly, or even switch between two very different signal chains, just like changing a patch--and yet, I still had all the knobs right in front of me for on-the-fly adjustments. It's the poor man's M13.

There are two things that are good to know when planning signal chains with the LS-2. First, the gain controls are on the return side of the chain, which is as it should be--otherwise it would be impossible to boost or cut volume-sensitive effects like distortion or envelope. Second, the send and return sides don't technically have to form a circuit: the active loop dictates where the input signal goes and which return is routed to the output, but they only have to connect if you want them to. The cases in which they don't are a relative minority, true, but they're useful edge cases regardless. Just off the top of my head, I can imagine using it to patch in a drum machine that lacks passthrough inputs, or to feed a recorder/house mix at an arbitrary point in the chain (say, before any reverb). Sure, there are better tools for doing that kind of thing, and if you have them handy, you should use them.

But if you don't... well, that's why you have the LS-2. It's the MacGyver of guitar pedals. It solves problems and makes useful stompboxes even more useful. And that's why it's one of the few items in my box o' gear that I would instantly replace if it were unavailable.

November 14, 2008

Filed under: music»tools»effects

Ode to the FX25B

While I'm rhapsodizing about unreliable analog effects, let's take a moment to reflect on the humble DOD FX25B Envelope Filter.

(I had to recolor this one to be green in order to match the physical pedal. For some reason, DOD's image is blue. This is not the worst sin committed by DOD's website--among other things, it sorts the pedal lines into categories like "Wrath of DOD" and "DOD is Love." Also, they have a Yngwie J. Malmsteen signature pedal, which I believe is actually considered a dangerous munition for the purposes of export.)

Put it this way: the FX25B lives up to DOD's hard-earned reputation as a builder of cheap, oddly-designed, unsubtle effects pedals*. The "blend" knob (added as a nod to the bassists who mostly bought the original unit, hence the "B" in FX25B) is not really a blend so much as a dry signal cut--keep it at 9 o'clock if you want any bass at all. The sensitivity is, sorry to say, way too sensitive, and usually has only one useful position, which (for me) is about 98% of the pot's available throw, and has to be precisely tweaked. Oh, and best of all, activating the pedal causes a volume drop of 20%, give or take.

And yet, with all those caveats, I always come back to this little green monstrosity whenever I want an envelope filter, because I can't get anything that will quack in quite the same touchy, uneven, delightful way. I've tried using Boss autowahs, a Bass crybaby, a regular wah, Digitech's bass synth, every Mu-Tron and generic envelope emulation in the Pod, and a gaggle of squawking VST effects--none of them give me the sound in my head as well as the FX25B. Not bad for a pedal that goes for ~$15 on eBay.

Little effects pedals like this are often called stompboxes, for the simple reason that they're metal boxes that you stomp on to activate them. But I love the word stompbox because it really sounds like something a little garish or unrestrained, and I myself am not a restrained effects consumer. It's like in every multi-FX unit review, the writer invariably calls the presets "showy" and "extreme"--I'm the guy who thinks those presets are awesome, and keeps them around just in case. It goes to show how individual sound choice can be, and why a pedal that can seem as profoundly silly as the DOD Envelope Filter is nonetheless one of my favorite stompboxes from my collection.

Or maybe there's just no accounting for taste.

* A quick key to the range of mainstream pedal manufacturers: if you want uninspired but reliable sounds, buy Boss. If you want incredibly cheap, flimsy, over-the-top crap, get one of those plastic Danelectro units. If you can't make up your mind between the two, you're a potential DOD customer.

November 13, 2008

Filed under: music»tools»looping

Wow and Flutter

These two words, wow and flutter, describe the charming warble created by variations in speed on an analog tape recorder. Believe it or not, those are technical terms. You've probably heard the phenomenon, even if you don't know it--it's the way that cassette players (back when people listened to cassette recorders) or old TV episodes slip slightly off pitch.

Whenever there's a technical flaw in audio equipment like this, it inevitably ends up being stretched in two directions. Obviously, when tracking musicians, engineers try to minimize the amount of wow and flutter so that the recording will be accurate. At the same time, the effects aren't always unpleasing, and so musicians often begin incorporating it into the music itself. So in much the same way that distortion from primitive amplifiers became part of the electric blues 'sound,' the pitch inaccuracy of tape-based delay and loop effects has become an effect in its own right. It's popular enough that digital delays like the Line 6 DL-4 or Boss Giga Delay have tape emulation modes, complete with adjustable, artificial wow and flutter (not to mention thousands of guitar snobs insisting that they prefer the real thing).

The LoFi Loop Junky I picked up last month in Portland is not a tape delay at all, but it does, quite intentionally, share a lot of the same sound palette. As the name implies, it's a low-fidelity sampler, with a hard frequency limit of 2.6KHz and a lot of self-noise from the storage mechanism. There are also two knobs for a built-in vibrato, giving it the same kind of pitch waver. I didn't buy the Loop Junky for those wow-and-flutter features, but they're rapidly becoming my favorite reason for using it.

When I first started the pretentious solo project, part of the goal (besides the ability to play music without subordinating my ego to a guitarist's) was to work on songwriting within the constraints of a loop pedal--and those constraints are not inconsiderable. But with that said, the equipment I've used has still been very capable: the DL-4 is not only very high-fidelity, with a long running time and layer-on-layer abilities, but it can also alter playing speed, reverse loops, or play them as one-shot samples. So while structurally it imposes some limits (oh, for an undo function!), sonically and mechanically it's a powerful machine, and it gives users a lot of freedom to explore.

You get none of that with the Loop Junky. It plays loops one way, at one speed, with no automatic stop--and it makes everything you play through it sound a bit like a cheap 8-track, to boot. When I originally heard about the pedal, that didn't matter: its main selling point for me was that it was a boutique pedal with a small footprint, a long recording time, and a battery life measured in centuries. As an occasional open mike player, where setup time is important, the heavy power draw and sheer mass of the DL-4 had become cumbersome. I figured a more agile pedal would be worth some feature set sacrifices.

What I didn't anticipate was the degree to which the Loop Junky, like all Z. Vex pedals, would make up for the loss of flexibility with character. For example, the vibrato is a lot of fun, but it has a kind of low-pass filter on its sound so it's really only audible on mid-range notes, or on chords higher up the fretboard. On low-fret basslines or percussive riffs, the effect is wasted. As a result, with only one layer available, I find myself adapting my approach: instead of looping beats and basslines, it's much more fun to loop the chords and play the rhythm parts by hand. Sometimes this means that a given song just won't work, but the challenge of adapting material to the pedal is markedly different from the Line 6. Instead of simply adapting a song's parts into structural cues, it feels more like creating a new arrangement.

To be honest, it's not surprising that I like the pedal for these reasons. I'm a digital aficionado for recording and production, but when playing out I usually prefer the simplicity and character of analog effects, and I doubt that I'm alone in feeling that way. It's part of what makes the words "wow and flutter" so appropriate--they capture the distortions and flaws that musicians have embraced and incorporated into the genres and forms of their music, not as a burden, but in a sense of joyful play.

August 26, 2008

Filed under: music»tools»effects


CDM has a preview today of the Openstomp pedal, which allows custom audio effects built in a visual programming environment, then loaded onto a durable stompbox with two switches and four knobs. It's in limited production now for $349. Not a bad price, considering.

Having messed around with computer-based live effects for a while, then returned to a mostly analog signal chain, I'm torn on this. I love playing with sound design, and would be thrilled to have a customized multi-FX pedal in my hands. But I've also found that pedalboard obsession comes at the cost of musical productivity, and despite months of tweaking, I never did create a distortion better than my MXR Bass DI, or an auto-wah that I liked better than my queasy-sounding DOD FX25.

In the end, I'm not an electrical or DSP engineer. I'm a musician, and that's where my strengths lie. The idea of the Openstomp is something I find powerfully attractive. I may pick one up. But musical utility is not, to me, what it has to offer.

It's also worth noting, I think, that calling it the "open" stompbox is a bit of a misnomer, given that other effects pedals are hardly "closed." Anyone with a soldering iron, a few bucks, and an Internet connection can easily find detailed plans and explanations of how to create (or recreate) their own homebrew guitar pedals. And it's unlikely that the visual DSP in the Openstomp programming kit is any easier to understand than a wiring diagram, given my experiences trying to hack something together in Pd.

Where the Openstomp competes is with proprietary multi-effects boxes like those from Digitech and Line 6. But even there, they have very different goals: the proprietary gear is really all about putting many traditional, analog-style sounds into a single box. Tweaking it beyond the manufacturer's specs is not possible by design. People don't buy a Pod or a GNX-4 because they want to make something crazy. They buy it because they want a pedalboard's worth of familiar sounds at the touch of a button. Being "closed" or "open" is irrelevant to them. Indeed, being limited in very specific ways is actually a feature of these devices, not a bug.

This is not the first time that people have tried something along these lines. The KVR Receptor puts VST plugins in a rack, and Justin Frankel designed his Jesusonic pedal before taking on DAW software with REAPER. The latter never really got off the ground. The former has become mostly popular with synth players who don't want to tour with laptops. If the Openstomp has a future, it most likely rests in its ability to provide one-shot studio-style sound tricks or music visualizations.

August 5, 2008

Filed under: music»tools»voice

Voice to Go

Via Make, the personal voice over recording booth. It certainly beats the solution that I've usually heard about in hotel room recording: dragging mattresses over to the corner and recording behind them.

Likewise, Rain Recording has one of its advice columns on how the voice studio benefits from digital tech, a viewpoint that may be natural coming from a company that builds dedicated audio workstations, but with which I happen to agree. There's some good links in that article, too, if you ever feel the need to do a little voice acting/VO work.

July 30, 2008

Filed under: music»tools»digital»daw

Waiting for WaveRT

One of the features that Vista was supposed to introduce, and which audio professionals were cautiously optimistic about, was a new kind of driver model meant to provide low-latency, sample-accurate sound. Windows has always had low-latency sound, but it's gone either through the WDM/Kernel-Streaming drivers, which are kind of a hack, or ASIO, which is a third-party driver standard created by DAW maker Steinberg. Windows has never had a built-in, professional-level audio subsystem the way that OS X has Core Audio and Linux has... well, whatever the hot new Linux audio API is this week, most likely JACK on top of ALSA. So an upgraded sound layer for Windows, one that would offer both ubiquity and performance, was welcome news.

Still would be, actually.

Now, I'm generally bullish on Vista, so don't get me wrong: I do appreciate the new sound mixer, which offers per-app mixing and better quality than the old mixer. I dig the multimedia scheduling process, so media playback is more reliable than it was previously. And driver support for the old standards has reached entirely satisfactory levels--I'm not lacking for external interface support any more. But the new driver model, WaveRT, shows no signs of being able to replace ASIO or WDM/KS on my laptop, for a couple of reasons.

The first cause for concern is that the driver model for WaveRT wasn't designed correctly in its initial incarnation. When digital audio is output from a sound card, it comes from the front of a buffer of samples on the card. Applications periodically refill the buffer by adding new samples onto the end. If they don't add samples before the buffer empties, the soundcard runs out of gas, so to speak, and the result is skipping or popping audio playback. Most driver models, like ASIO, include a mechanism for the hardware itself to notify the software when the buffer is running low, so it can be topped off.

WaveRT's original implementation, as these posts from Cakewalk tech guru Neil Borthwick explain, did not use a notification mode for some incomprehensible reason. Instead, it required the audio software to poll the audio hardware--to manually check on the status of the buffer. What sounds pro-active is actually problematic, since real-time audio works typically uses buffers as short as 128 samples, which on CD-quality audio means that the buffer empties itself more than 300 times a second. Under the polling mode, therefore, the CPU spends a large amount of time checking the status of the sample supply instead of using that time to render audio. Inevitably, samples go missing and quality suffers.

Late in Vista's development it became obvious that this polling-based model was unworkable, and Microsoft added a notification mode similar to ASIO or Core Audio. And apparently it works great--although WaveRT is unavailable for FireWire or USB devices, users report that for onboard or PCI-based solutions, they get very stable, very low latencies. Onboard sound, of course, is hardly a substitute for a pro interface, but for mixing/composing on the go, it does just fine. Cheers all around.

Unless, like me, the OEM who built your computer hasn't updated their sound drivers to include notification mode, in which case you're basically back to using WDM/KS and ASIO, if possible. Worst case scenario, and I'm looking right at you, Analog Devices SoundMAX HD, the driver doesn't even support sample rates other than the oddball 48KHz using any driver modes, and so you're basically locked out of using onboard sound for any production at all.

Unlike graphics cards, where drivers are available directly from the hardware manufacturer (with the caveat that a modified INF may be required), audio drivers are usually "firewalled" behind the company that designed the computer. I can get a generic driver from Nvidia for my Quadro 140M card (and I have, since it doubles the framerate in Stalker and Sins over Lenovo's latest version), but for audio features I'm basically stuck until Lenovo gets around to it. There is no generic SoundMAX driver to download, a symptom of both the sad state of laptop sound and the lack of a decent audio hacking community.

To their credit, when I filed a request to find out about the availability of updated drivers, Lenovo promptly called me back for clarification and told me that they'd be sending a note on to their technical hotline. It's not as helpful as actually getting my hardware to function properly, but they were at least very nice about it. Score one for the service contract, perhaps.

The blame here is threefold. It's Microsoft's fault that they didn't get WaveRT into workable shape from the start, since audio buffers are a solved problem. It's Analog Device's fault that they either haven't written a compliant driver or they refuse to release it. And it's Lenovo's fault for lagging in their own driver updates. No doubt the audience for Thinkpads is a bit thin among media professionals, making it a low priority for support staff. But the machine is exemplary by other standards: fast, stable, tough as nails. It is unfortunate--although par for the course in this industry--that its audio capabilities can't live up to what's been promised.

April 22, 2008

Filed under: music»tools»digital


For my own future reference, two free tools for making music on a Symbian smartphone:

  • BeatEd is a drum machine that supports custom kits, developed by the unfortunately-named ByteRapers.
  • Syntrax looks like the fusion of a tracker with an analog monosynth--if Reason were made back in 1983, this is what it would look like. The tutorial videos show off something that looks like a pretty capable, albeit clumsy, workstation.

April 8, 2008

Filed under: music»tools»digital


File under "Things I Write for Ars Which Are Also Very Cool on Their Own:" MySong is a Microsoft Labs/University of Washington project that creates simple accompaniment for a vocal melody. You sing into a mic while it plays a metronome to keep you on tempo, then the software figures out a basic set of chord changes to go with your song. The chord choices can be tweaked using "happy" and "jazz" sliders, which is one of the best user interfaces I've ever heard about. If only Word had sliders for "happy" and "jazz" it would make my writing much more fun.

What's interesting about this is not that it's some kind of advanced technology--it's actually very simple, and could probably run on a cell phone. But if you watch the video on their project page, it looks like the kind of thing that's just naturally enjoyable--the audio equivalent of the Photo Booth that comes with OS X. People with media production experience tend to look down on "beginner" tools like Sequel or Garageband, but we forget that there's a whole class of people for whom even those tools are both difficult to use and unnecessarily ambitious. I know a lot of people who are not necessarily musical, but would still be delighted to sing a song to their computer and have it add a backing band, no matter how simple or generic.

January 16, 2008

Filed under: music»tools»bass

Lace Helix

Reminds me of the Rondo Retro that I wanted so badly in a bass version. It's interesting, that Lace seems to have been motivated partially by environmental factors:

The Helix bass is equipped with the revolutionary Alumitone pickup, designed by Jeff Lace. These Alumitones are a 'current driven' design, rather the traditional voltage based pickups, allowing the musician a higher fidelity or 'broad-band response' that helps to create a tighter top-end, more mid-range and a huge bottom end. This passive pickup outperforms many active systems, and the sonic output level generally exceeds that of similar preamp equipped basses. With today's increased environmental concerns, Lace also wanted to create a lightweight, advanced pickup that doesn't contribute to pollutants caused by discarded batteries. "By using the Alumitone, the need for conventional pickups with a preamp and battery are eliminated, and you lose almost two pounds of weight, without compromising output or performance," states Jeff Lace.
Ignoring the marketing-speak, I hope that this is something more luthiers will start to keep in mind. I doubt that the industry is equivalent to e-waste in terms of impact, for example, but the use of exotic hardwoods has often been something that made me wince about Warwick's basses, for example.

It's not terribly expensive, either. The bolt-on version is $420 at Musician's Friend. Not that I need another bass.

January 2, 2008

Filed under: music»tools»synth

How to Create an FM Piano for Your Alesis Micron

I decided that I really do need to get serious about improving my keyboard skills, which have not been helped by the fact that my only instruments were either a 25-key USB keyboard (cramped) or a Yamaha DX27 (no velocity sensing, hard to program, the size of a small Volkswagon). So I used some of my Christmas money to buy an Alesis Micron, which is a virtual analog synth with 37 keys.

"Virtual analog," of course, translates to "can sound like a Moog Mini and a bunch of other synthesizers from the 70's." It doesn't do samples, and it doesn't do physical modeling. Those things don't bother me terribly much. It's still a really cool little box--eventually I will learn to use the built-in drum machine/pattern sequencer, and I will be crowned DANCE MUSIC KING OF ARLINGTON.

Conspicuously absent from the prodigious list of included patches, however, is a decent piano. Granted, classic analog synths were also notoriously bad at simulating acoustic piano, and the Micron does aim to mimic them. But it also includes basic FM capabilities for its three oscillators. As this video shows, they're more than capable of pulling of a piano imitation at least as good as my aging, 4-operator DX27, even while the patch creator is needlessly cryptic about how he put it together.

Well, I feel no need to be cryptic, and I'm annoyed by the fact that there seems to be relatively little information out there for Micron programming, short of a Yahoo! group that I don't particularly want to join. So after poking around in FM synthesis research, pulling the presets out of the Yamaha, and fiddling with oscillator tunings for about a day, here are my piano patch settings.

Obviously the voice is polyphonic with no portamento or analog drift. The important parts of the voice are that it needs a small FM amount (2.8%) and an FM type (lin 2+3). I left all three oscillators as sine waves (as far as I know, the DX synths only used sine waves for their operators), but oscillators 1 and 2 are shifted down one octave. Oscillator 3 is shifted up one octave and seven semitones. To remove some of the harshness from this sound, I add the Oberheim filter (ob 2pole) set at 1.307kHz with no resonance, keytracking, or offset.

Now we need to set the envelopes for the amplitude and the FM modulation. The former sounds natural to me with an attack of 1.99ms, decay of .5ms, sustain time of 1.816s, sustain level of 75%, and a release time of 214.7ms. I also send 75% of the velocity scaling to the envelope, to give the playing some dynamics. For the pitch/modulation envelop (Env 3), I use a .5ms attack, 96.6ms decay, 835.4ms sustain at 100%, and a 2ms release time. Looking at my settings, I'm not actually sure that this envelope is being used, but I'm including it here just in case.

The only thing left that's important is the modulation matrix. Envelope 3 is sent to the FM amount, with no offset or level (guess it really isn't doing anything, but setting level to .7% can add a little edge). I send M1 to the FM amount, which is useful for turning the piano into a harpsichord, and M2 is used to add reverb through FX1 (I prefer just a little bit of plate 'verb). By setting the x, y, and z knobs to control FM type, Osc 3 octave, and Osc 3 semitone transposition, you can experiment with the "tone" of the piano, making it harder or more bell-like to taste.

It's not as realistic as a sample-based piano, but it's a classic FM piano sound, and it will do for stage purposes. It also illustrates, I think, just how versatile the Micron actually is. I've only had it a couple of days, but so far I think it's a very impressive little box, and great for portable practice sessions.

Future - Present - Past