Music and effects for architects

Andrew Booker 2008-05-26 15:41:14

Live background music at the Design Museum in London on Friday evening of 23 May 2008 was provided by Improvizone. Us. From the left, we were Steve Lawson on bass and loopery, Os on laptop-sourced sounds and more loopery, and Andrew Booker on electronic drums. Me. That was in case anyone was trying to google us.

We seemed to go down well at the venue, particularly with the organiser. The first thing he said was, it's nice to have people who just get on and sort themselves out. Yup. Those are the sorts of people we have playing at Improvizone gigs. Also we were prepared to compromise on volume while there was a lecture going on upstairs. Our ability and willingness to play quietly was an important reason why we got the gig in the beginning. Most of all, we didn't do too bad a job with the music.

There were some really nice sections. I'm looking forward to picking up Os's copies of the audio this week. Os did a great job as usual in his dual role of sound sculptor and archivist. He even had some extended samples of Mike Bearpark, who couldn't make this one in body, but was with us in binary. Steve was excellent in three different ways. His setup allows him to be an ambient texturalist, a soloist and a great rhythm section bassist. All at once, if he likes. Next time I want him sitting next to me, partly so I can hear him for better musical interaction, and partly so I can watch what on earth he's doing.

If not for its music and how it went, I liked this gig simply for what it was: an interesting venue populated by creatively-minded bodies (as opposed to suit-wearing, beer-quaffing, financially-oriented types such as can be found across Tower Bridge), right by the Thames, in summer, on the Friday of a bank holiday weekend. I didn't have to promote it myself, and we got paid.

The easiest bit of these gigs for me is flapping sticks up and down, and calling it drumming. The technical aspects are where loads of effort needs to go in, and where the headaches creep in during the performance. I had to restart my laptop three times because it began making glitch noises. It has coped OK in the past, but maybe I was trying to get it to do too much. Or maybe it's time I was using a mac. My drum setup has changed since the last gig: I'm now running all my effects through the laptop, and for this gig I was using three parallel effects paths of distortion, delay and ring modulation. The delay and ring mod are wired to allow feedback through the desk, for introducing some proper chaos. The delay also includes a Bojo wave changer, perfect for messing up drum sounds. Not much good for anything else, perhaps. I'm controlling those two modulators externally using three controllers: the effects knob on my SPDS and two 10K linear variable resistors built into my rack. One of those goes into the expression pedal input on the SPDS (I've had that for a while), the other goes into the hi-hat controller on the TD6 drum module. They have to be wired slightly differently. The hi-hat controller is not an expression pedal, but it can monitor a varying resistance which it uses for pitch control on a couple of its drum sounds.

For the first time ever I used the SPDs to play samples I had recorded myself. For the benefit of those wandering around the high-ceilinged exhibition areas last Friday, you were listening to me bashing aerosol cans, half-full plastic bottles of detergent and a stepladder. You would not have known that. It all just sounded like percussion instruments. I think the next thing I'm going to look at when I've settled my visuals coding is generating a load of short WAV samples that don't sound like real percussion. This is a problem I'm having with electronic drums. All out-of-the-box electronic drum gear seems to want to emulate real acoustic instruments. Apparently every electronic drummer needs fifty different timbres of 13" tom-tom, otherwise they just don't have enough flexibility, man. I don't want genuine sounds. I want weird, unnatural, unrecognisable percussive sounds. And if I keep having trouble using the laptop to process audio and disguise my squeaky-authentic drum noises in real time, at least I might be able to use it to prepare samples that don't need effecting.

It was a little bit of a kerfuffle getting samples into the SPDS. I don't use the sample recorder inside the SPDS. I use a condenser mic plugged into my external soundcard, and I record on the laptop using Audacity, which I then use to export the samples I want into WAV files. It's so much easier using an audio editor on a computer than pushing buttons with a tiny display on the sampling pad. My WAV files go through a USB card reader onto a CompactFlash card, which I then bury somewhere in the side of the SPDS. You then have to import each file into the SPDS before you can assign it to a pad. A pad can trigger one of two waves, depending on how hard you hit it or whether you're pressing a footswitch.

I set the drums up again this morning to make some improvements. Of my three laptop effects paths, I've dropped the distortion. The ring modulator makes easily enough of a mess off the drum signal, and I now only need to be running four outputs, not five. Also I've increased the latency on the external soundcard from 3ms to 4ms. It seems to be OK now, maybe that's where I've been going wrong for the last two years. I'll see if it behaves on Wednesday at Ember.

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