Category Archives: Instruments

The Mighty Monotron Trio

original monotronToday for “Pocket Music Monday” we’re going to talk about the Korg Monotron trio. I considered making an individual post about each monotron, but decided it was best to talk about all three since they share so many similar characteristics.

When Korg released the original Monotron, some might say it sparked, or at least was at the forefront of the current resurgence of affordable analog synth gear. This cheap little box features the now legendary MS-20 filter with its great character and really fun extreme resonance. The epitome of portable analog fun, the original monotron features just the very basics of synthesis, with only an LFO to accompany the filter section. The LFO can modify the pitch or cutoff, giving you a surprising amount of sounds, even with the difficult to play ribbon controller. Not only can you produce some great analog sound effects and noises, but Korg allowed for external audio to be processed by the filter which makes the Monotron infinitely more valuable and usable. Just about anything you run through this thing gains a ton of character and the lo-fi output is great (at least to me, though I suppose to other people it is a gripe.)

Monotron Duo and Monotron Delay

Monotron Duo and Monotron Delay

After the original Monotron’s success, Korg released two other Monotron iterations, which include the Monotron Duo and the Monotron Delay. Both have the same MS-20 filter, but add other cool things like a radical-squealing feedback-filled delay and a crazy cross-modulating oscillator section. Each of these has great merits and are a ton of fun to play with. What I enjoy the most about the Monotron Trio is that they are not only infinitely twiddly, but also can be used in conjunction with other gear to creative a wide variety of audio creations. Below are a few things I’ve done with my Monotrons. Check out Youtube for a lot of interesting things other people have done with these awesome boxes.

Here is a little droney lo-fi experimental piece I put together that uses only Monotrons and a little sequence put together using Pixitracker 1Bit for iOS:

Here is a song from my latest EP (more on that soon) with a Monotron intro that gives way to some Omnichord:

And here is another song from my EP that features a lo-fi Casio line (near the end) run through the Monotron Delay to add not only delay but also some crunchy distortion, ending in a feedback-y Karma Police inspired ending:

I’ve had a lot of fun with my Monotrons. The icing on this analog cake is that you can get each one for $50 or less, which is a steal for the amount of creative and noisy output they produce. You can read individual reviews of each Monotron that I’ve done on my other website here:
Original Monotron
Monotron Delay
Monotron Duo

A Flute for Your Pocket: The Ocarina

ocarina

Allegro Ocarina by Songbird

This Pocket Music Monday we are going to divert a little from our past two weeks of battery powered electronic styled pocket instruments. Instead we will talk about the wonderful and versatile little ocarina. The ocarina is a small flute that can vary quite a bit in size, shape and design, but usually has a larger more open body cavity as opposed to the more common flute with its slender and tubular design. Ocarinas have traditionally been made out of clay, and often have between 4 and 12 holes. These can be arranged in many different ways, allowing for different tones, key registers, and playstyles.

The Ocarina has been around for quite some time, but saw quite a bit of jump in interest after the Nintendo 64 game, Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time was released in 1998. Here, docjazz4 plays the main Zelda theme on a Zelda themed ocarina:

Since Ocarina of Time, the ocarina has gained quite a bit in popularity, though is still relatively unknown to most. It is a shame because these little flutes are a lot of fun to play. It doesn’t take much to learn a little melody, and it is great fun to have with you wherever you go, whether in your pocket or strapped around your neck. Like most instruments, learning to master the ocarina will take time and practice, but the accessibility of this little instrument is quite wonderful.

ocarinas

my ocarinas


Here are the two ocarinas that I own. On the left is a small soprano ocarina by Songbird Ocarinas made of clay with 5 holes. On the right is a polycarbonate ocarina in G from Mountain Ocarinas. Both are a lot of fun to play, but the Mountain Ocarina is definitely a bit easier. If you’re interested at all in ocarinas, definitely check out Songbird Ocarinas and Mountain Ocarinas, as they both have great info and audio/video of their products. And definitely check out docjazz4’s youtube channel. He owns a huge variety of ocarinas, reviews them and plays them excellently.

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Meditation in your pocket – Buddha Machine (II)

mybuddhamachineFor today’s “Pocket Music Monday” we are going to talk about the Buddha Machine by FM3. First off, what is the Buddha Machine?

Taken from http://www.fm3buddhamachine.com/:

The Buddha Machine is a small plastic box that plays meditative music composed by Christiaan Virant and Zhang Jian.

Doesn’t sound like much does it? Well I assure you, this little guy is very cool indeed. I have the 2nd model out of three made by FM3, not including some special editions over the years. This particular Buddha Machine, the II, has 9 looping short tracks, a small volume knob, a built in speaker, and a speed control to alter the music’s pitch and speed. It also had a headphone jack, but I think using it reduces the charm of the device. Perhaps it it useful when if recording or sampling your Buddha Machine.

buddha2deck

So what is so neat about this little gadget? I again refer to my gravitation to lo-fi sounds, as this cheaply made little plastic box just screams lo-fi charm. The tinny speaker seems to crackle and spit at you, whether by nature of the recording or the hardware I don’t know. The music pieces themselves are nicely varied, interesting, and decidedly meditative. They range from somber drones to stringed twangs and melancholy piano strikes. All in all, you can easily become lost in each piece, though repetitious, as either an active or passive listener. I have used my little Buddha Machine II for ambient background, as a lullaby, for concentration, and for meditation.

Buddhamachine2.0

The music is so captivating that there are many artists who have done entire remix albums of the pieces. The tones and textures when manipulated can lead to some impressive soundscapes. Others have taken the simple device to the soldering table, circuit bending and altering it in wildly imaginative ways to create strange sounds and drones.

This track was made by “reducing” or cutting up the sounds of a Buddha Machine II’s loops, and adding some crisp delay and stereo effects:

All in all, this little box is mystifying. I think some of this is due to the music itself, but a lot has to do with the portability and simple form factor. Something about the actual hardware makes it special, despite (and maybe because of) the cheapness of quality. You can certainly find the audio tracks online or listen to them looped from a “Buddha Machine iPhone App.” But don’t. There is a huge difference in this day and age of audio fidelity and computers and smartphones and the days not too long ago when a crackling radio was groundbreaking. Sometimes going back a little bit proves to be a more rewarding and engaging journey than we’d imagine.

If you have a chance to play with a Buddha Machine, do it. If you have one, take it with you.

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Pocket Music Monday – The Stylophone

the original stylophoneI’ll admit it. I’m a sucker for little music gadgets and toys. Each time I see one I have to seriously fight the dreaded “gear acquisition syndrome” (GAS). Then usually it is just a matter of time until I break down and find some excuse to buy the item. Needless to say I have quite a lot of musical toys now. Most of these are small and somewhat portable for some music/noise making on the go, which is quite fun. So to share some of these musical toys, this will be the first in a series of posts on musical items that are small enough to fit in your pocket. Enjoy.

The (in)famous Stylophone is probably one of my first, if not THE first of my music gadget acquisitions. It is a little on the big side of “pocketable,” but I couldn’t not include it. It was most recently made famous online by Brett Domino. (Be warned that the video below is entirely tongue in cheek.)

It was first released in 1968 and was sold mostly as a children’s toy. The Stylophone did end up seeing some use by some notable acts like David Bowie and Kraftwerk, but remained largely obscure, with production stopping in 1975. It was rereleased in 2007 featuring a volume control and two extra sounds.

The stylophone is played by using a metal stylus that is moved up and down a metal keybed to close a circuit and give different pitches to a VCO (voltage controlled oscillator.) The stylophone has a very unique and some would argue, harsh sound. It is a whole lot of fun to play, and you can slide around to various pitches quite quickly with the stylus for a very recognizable style. It has a built in speaker and headphone output, as well as an input jack so you can play along with some other sound source from the Stylphone’s speaker. The speaker itself is terrible, but that appeals to the lo-fi junkie in me, and makes for a great portable instrument.

What I like the most about an instrument like the Stylophone is that it really becomes whatever you make it. It’s limitations become your chance to use some creativity. You can use it as is with its tinny sound, or double it up, sample it, make it into a bassline, and a lot more. See my Stylophone in the Vine video below. Click the icon in upper left for sound.

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Good to Hear demos Fingerlab’s DM1

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For the past few years I’ve relied heavily on my mobile devices in my musical excursions. In fact, both my ipad and iphone are vital members in my current one man band. The reason I love mobile devices is because I have access to a huge selection of sounds even on just one device and I’m able to create wherever I go. (Not to mention, apps are significantly cheaper than their hardware counterparts… well, most of the time).

One of my most used apps is a drum machine called DM1 which was created by Fingerlab. This particular drum machine is host to many digital drum kit sounds; many of which are vintage classics such as Roland’s TR-808 and CR-78. There are also some great acoustic sets as well as some sets made specifically for the app. Check out the youtube video below for some hands on with DM1.

As you can see in the video, DM1 is very diverse in it’s sounds and customizations. You can compose entire songs inside the DM1 app making use of all the pattern slots or you can create just a simple beat.

If you are looking to fill the rhythmless void in your life or just want to play around with a bunch of great sounding kits give DM1 a try.

DM1 for iPhone 1.99
DM1 for iPad 4.99 (The iPad version has a few more features than the iPhone version. Check out Fingerlab’s website to see the differences between versions)

Sorry andriod users, no support for DM1…. yet.

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PLOrk

What is PLOrk? It stands for Princeton Laptop Orchestra. Sounds goofy right? That because it is. It’s also a really cool idea with a ton of potential.

A professor at Princeton wrote a custom programming language for laptops specifically to interact with custom made speakers with 5 or 6 channels of sound. Watch the video below for a brief overlook on what PLOrk is all about.

Here is a slightly more in depth look at the orchestra and its inner workings.

So, is this going to be the next generation of large ensemble musical performance? Will we start seeing laptop orchestras popping up around the world or is it just a novel idea that is going to fizzle out?

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Turning Things into Musical Things

Eight years before ex-Talking Heads member and general weirdness guru David Byrne was collaborating with St. Vincent on Love This Giant and four years before he reunited with Brian Eno to make Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, he was busy scurrying around a warehouse in Minnesota, setting up small machines at different parts of the building.

Byrne installed air compressors, hammers, and motors onto the water pipes, heating systems, plumbing, and metal girders in the infrastructure of the Aria, a historical warehouse in Minneapolis that serves as an event center. Each of these machines corresponded to the keys of a centrally-located, retrofitted organ to make an instrument capable of making a variety of mostly unsettling and echoey whistles, clacks, rattles and hums.

Byrne repeated this process with three other buildings across the world: at the Färgfabriken in Stockholm (2005), the Battery Maritime Building in New York (2008), and the Roundhouse in London (2009).

The one that remains my favorite aesthetically is the Roundhouse.  The organ lies in the dead center of the bottom floor of the cylindrical building, out of which the wires explode out and hang on the small machines Byrne installed, creating a polychromatic spider’s web.   It goes a little something like this:

This set-up makes me want to see what you could do visually with this concept.   Instead of motors, the keys could be connected to projectors that display different constellations on the ceiling against a projected sea of stars, or spectrums of light on a central object.  I’ll keep thinking about it.

I was reminded of “Playing the Building” – the name of this series of installations – by this video of the pianist Hauschka playing his augmented piano in InCase’s Room 205.  The Room 205 project, which sets up venues to the unique specifications of each episode’s featured artist, has a few other neat videos as well.  I’d at least suggest checking out Daedelus’ very blue videos.

Keep it tasty.

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The Suzuki Omnichord (and friends)

I have a lot of fun little instruments. They range from toy pianos and kalimbas to cheesy Casios and homemade noisemakers like the Atari Punk Console. Of all of my novelty instruments, however, my Omnichord is probably my favorite. These were made by Suzuki in the 1980s, and came in a few different models. It was eventually replaced by the digital (and much less cool) Suzuki Q-Chord. Omnichords are a bit harder to find these days. They have a sweet lo-fi nintendo/casio-ish sound that I find very appealing. Plus there’s nothing else quite like them.

What is an Omnichord?

The Omnichord is an electronic instrument that has a few similarities to an autoharp. The primary feature being the ability to press a button that corresponds to a chord, and then strum that chord with the other hand. In addition to the Omnichord’s “strumplate” and chord buttons, Omnichords also have various drum rhythms and a tempo control. The chords can play along with these patterns with a walking bassline, or simply sustain throughout. The strumming can then be manipulated over the top of this accompaniment. This makes for some fun little arrangements. Some later models offer more voices for the strum sounds and even enable the Omnichord to be used as a midi controller.

Why Omnichord?

There are many things to like about this instrument. People may like it for the way it sounds, the design, or simply the uniqueness of it all coming together in such a package. For me though, something I really like about the Omnichord is as an aide to songwriting. There is something very exciting about exploring different chord progressions and playing with the cool and chippy sounding drum patterns that really helps that creative spark in me. Many artists have used the Omnichord to great effect, either as a featured instrument or as a shimmering addition to an already full arrangement. Below are a few vids of some Omnichords in action.


Omnichord alternatives?

There are not too many things that do what the Omnichord does quite as well as the Omnichord does it. However, there are a few things of note that should be mentioned here. First, the Omnichord is actually not the first of its kind. It is actually the successor to the Suzuki Tronichord. These are incredible rare and hard to find, but if you get the chance, I would certainly snatch one up. The other offering, like mentioned earlier in the article, is the Suzuki Q-Chord. These look very similar to the Omnichord, and have the same basic features of chord selection and strumplate. These also all feature midi capabilities (of which only the later models of Omnichords have) and a song cartridge for playing along with. While all the features of the Q-Chord make it sound like it would be an improvement on the Omnichord, something about this most recent digital instrument just doesn’t have the same charm as the original.

Surprisingly enough, two other alternatives to the Omnichord can be found as iPad apps. These are the Polychord (Polychord App Store Link) and Chordion (Chordion App Store Link). Both offer the strumming and chord selection features of the Omnichord, but on the iPad screen. The Polychord app has choices of rhythms, basslines, arpeggiators, sound editing, recording, midi, and more. Chordion offers less features, sticking simply to the chord + strum idea, but sounds can be edited with vibrato and tremolo adjustments, and chord families can be made custom by the player to fit the song and layout of preference. Both are fun diversions, and offer something a little different from the original. I’d venture to say that the hardware form of the original Omnichord is still more appealing however, but your mileage may vary.

Omnichords rock!

If you ever have the chance to play an Omnichord, I’d highly recommend it. You might just fall in love with it. I did.

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Don’t Mind My Drone

Drone
1: a deep sustained or monotonous sound : hum
2: an instrument or part of an instrument (as one of the fixed-pitch pipes of a bagpipe) that sounds a continuous unvarying tone

drone bee

A drone bee. Not to be confused with drone music. Though also very cool.

Drone music and its derivatives have become a recent fascination for me. Previously, the idea of an unchanging tone that spans for the majority of a song sounded strange and terrible. However, I have discovered that the sonic possibilities and subtle harmonic shifts that can be found in drone music to be very deep and gratifying if dug into. Drone music as a relative of ambient and meditative music is also quite intriguing to me. The way sound can seem to slide into the background of one’s consciousness or be specifically focused on in the foreground may depend entirely on the listener, but I feel like drone music can easily be appreciated in both ways.

What I love most about drone music is creating it. There is something very simple and yet tangible about creating this type of music/noise. So today we will build a drone. We are going to use my Drone Lab, designed by Peter Edwards of Casper Electronics. This was built from a kit, and features 4 square wave oscillators, an effects section, and some tremolo features. You can read more about it at Casper Electronics or in my short review of the kit here. The advantages of using this type of hardware for drones (despite the fact that it was designed for drones) is the immediate hands-on nature of the sounds, the simplicity of the device, and the completely manual/analog nature of the tuning of each oscillator.

I’m going to break down a simple process of the way I sometimes build a drone and discuss a little about each element as it is added. This is a pretty raw and dirty drone, but illustrates certain points well. Skip to the bottom to hear the whole thing from start to finish.

First, we introduce a single tone, and then add in another one octave below. The notes are slightly detuned, creating a “pulsing” effect:
Part 1

Then we add in another tone, again slightly out of tune, creating more width and adding a lot more harmonic content as the voices phase in and out of one another:
Part 2

The 4th voice added is one fifth up from the original tone, creating a little more interest in our wall of sound:
Part 3

Here we add some pretty heavy distortion. This ups the harmonic content even more, and accentuates the pulsing of the voices:
Part 4

A simple low pass filter is swept over the gritty sound, revealing more nuances of harmonics and creating movement:
Part 5

Finally, some additional band pass filters are swept around and added in and out, again to create more interest and movement:
Part 6

From here on out, the drone continues by adjusting the above changes to some degree: voices are added and dropped, the tuning is adjusted between them, distortion amount changes, and low/band pass filters swept around. If you’re feeling adventurous, the drone in its entirety can be heard below:

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Balafon

If you are looking for something to get me for Christmas, look no further.

The talented man in the video below is playing a Balafon that was constructed by the guys over at http://baragnouma.com

Wikipedia:
The balafon (bala, balaphone) is a resonated frame, wooden keyed percussion idiophone of West Africa; part of the idiophonefamily of tuned percussion instruments that includes the xylophone, marimba, glockenspiel, and the vibraphone. Sound is produced by striking the tuned keys with two padded sticks.

Percussive African music is so inspiring. Hope you enjoy!

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