Sun Survey Time Lapse

I’m getting ready to do some landscaping and wanted to get an idea about how much sun shines on different parts of the yard. Today’s weather prediction was mostly sunny, so I fired up a webcam, gaff taped it to the window and hacked a quick intervalometer Max patch. I grabbed a frame every 30 seconds capturing a total of 1133 frames during the day. This video shows them at 30 frames per second.

Thanks to Day of the New Dan’s Time Lapse Assembler for coming through when ImageMagick choked.

My Own True Love

This month’s score from Post & Beam is My Own True Love.

Download the score as a pdf file: my-own-true-love.pdf
Download the score as a Lilypond .ly file: my-own-true-love.ly

Notes on My Own True Love

  • I found this melody in John and Alan Lomax’s Our Singing Country. I worked out the two-finger, thumb lead banjo part to highlight the double drones of the first and fifth string. The vocal style is haunted by the ghost of Roscoe Holcomb.
  • The electronics part uses an FFT freeze frame technique to create an evolving texture by extending a single frame of audio from the banjo (and sometimes voice). Applying pressure to force sensitive resistors mounted on the head and neck of the banjo changes the amplitude contour of the FFT synthesis, making the resulting sound smoother or spikier.

East Virginia

This month’s score from Post & Beam is East Virginia.

Download the score as a pdf file: east-virginia.pdf
Download the score as a Lilypond .ly file: east-virginia.ly

Notes on East Virginia

  • The banjo break at the beginning comes almost directly from Pete Seeger’s How to Play the 5-String Banjo. I worked out the banjo part in the verse by ear, following the melody and drawing inspiration from Buell Kazee’s recording on the Anthology of American Folk Music.
  • The electronics part uses multiple looping delays to create a rhythmic texture from the banjo. The timing for each delay line is based on the time between consecutive instances of a given note played by the banjo. One delay line changes every time the computer hears the note g , another changes when the computer hears f, another for b-flat, etc.
  • The tablature above more accurately represents how I’d play the tune on a fretted banjo. When I play the fretless banjo, as on the recording, I throw in more slides on the 3rd and 4th strings.

Arduino On Board

Photo by Nicholas Zambetti

I recently ordered an Arduino board to try another approach for getting sensor data into my computer. More and more of my students are using them, too, and I wanted some first-hand experience. Most of my previous work has been with the Basic Stamp family of boards. The Arduino arrived this week and I promptly sat down and gave it a try.

The first thing I noticed (aside from the price: the entire Arduino setup costs significantly less than similar boards!) was how much easier it was to get the Arduino going than the Stamp. This isn’t exactly a fair comparison, since my initial experience with Stamps was way back in 1999 or 2000, and it was also my first time fooling with microcontrollers. I’ve learned plenty since then, and the products (along with their attendant software) have come a long way. I have to give the nod to the Arduino for its cross-platform, open-source software. (When I first started with the Stamp I kept a junker 386 PC around, just to run the Stamp compiler. No fun.)

I’m also impressed by the Arduino software. I’ve admittedly done little more than fire up the example “sketches” and tweak a few lines of code. However, the Processing/Java-style language seems a better fit for my (weak) coding style. The community around the Arduino seems very active. There are already a number of projects that simplify moving data from the board to common software such as MaxMSP and Processing.

Then there’s also the luxury of the USB cable that serves for both communication and power supply. This may seem trivial, but I look forward to the day when I don’t need to change the battery in my sensor box before every performance, or carry a spare 9-volt wherever I go. I may also jettison my USB MIDI interface along with a MIDI cable required by my Stamp setup. Suddenly, though, my USB ports are getting a little crowded…

The one niggling worry I have is the serial communication with Max. Using MIDI is certainly slower, but seems foolproof to me: no handshaking necessary, a dead simple initialization process, etc. I hope my fears are simply due to a lack of experience; that once everything is setup and tested I’ll feel just as confident with the serial connection as I do with my aging MIDI cables.

Max Multitrack Mojo

I’m in the middle of recording a number of my pieces for banjo and electronics for a forthcoming CD. (Stay tuned for more info!) All of the works involve live, interactive processing of the banjo sound and sometimes the voice as well. This processing is done in Max and is driven by analysis of both audio inputs and sensor inputs. All of this is geek speak to say that every time I perform the piece it sounds a little different, and sometimes markedly so. This can make recording the pieces tricky. Especially since most of the music we hear is assembled like a layer cake: each part recorded separately and then mixed together after the fact (with yummy frosting…). Not a workable option for my process.

Straight to “Tape”

My previous approach to recording followed a “live to 2 track” design. I would play the piece and capture the input sounds along with whatever sounds were generated by my Max patch. The results were certainly true to life, represented my live performances well, and usually sounded fine. Occasionally, though, I’d wish for more flexibility to tweak the sounds, particularly the vocal or banjo sounds since I don’t have the luxury of recording in the world’s greatest sounding room. So I looked into ways to expand the number of available tracks.

Multitrack Multitudes

I played around with Soundflower, Rewire and Jack in various combinations and sometimes got things working pretty well. But the setups never completely gelled for me–partly because I felt constrained by the number of available outputs on my aging MOTU interface, partly because I needed as much available CPU for running my patches and couldn’t spare enough to run my DAW at the same time. So I eventually went back to recording everything in Max using a very slightly modified version of the quickrecord utility. This turned out to be a great way to break out individual tracks for further EQing during the mixing stage. One drawback was having to split the multichannel file into individual stereo or mono files. (Audacity and ProTools both do this very well. If only AudioFinder would support multichannel files…) But mostly I still felt constrained by the limited number of outputs on my audio interface; I often resorted to creating submixes of individual elements in Max in order to cram all the sounds into the available channels. With 10 outputs available I’d use the first 2 for monitoring while recording, 3 or 4 for live mics, leaving only 4 or 5 for sounds generated by Max.

Aggregrate Device – Duh!

Just the other day I had a breakthrough realization: I could use a Soundflower aggregate device to address many more output channels than are physically available on my interface. Now I’ve got channels to spare. I’m kicking myself for not thinking of this sooner. The biggest drawback? Now I’ll be spending much more time in mixing mode. I wonder when I’ll ever get this CD finished…?

Favorites from 2009

Here are few favorite picks of recorded media, live shows and print from 2009. As usual, I’m not much of an up-to-the-minute consumer so some of this may be old news. The exception here are the live shows, of course, so let’s start there…

Live Music

My two favorite shows were at EMPAC. The pummeling dished out by The Boredoms + 9 drummers easily takes the top spot. Garth Knox’s viola and viola d’amore might have been the polar opposite of The Boredoms but was no less riveting. I was also mightily impressed with 2009 ASAC guests Area C and Ben Bracken.

Recorded Music

The only new release on my list this year is Take Me To the Water from Dust to Digital. It’s a solid (maybe even stolid) collection of gospel–no real surprises or major standouts. But combined with the beautiful book I know I’ll be returning to this one often.

Two older CDs of music by Arthur Russel and Julius Eastman are now safely ensconced in my desert island collection:

Arthur Russel World of Echo
Where has this record been all my life? I had heard Russel’s avant-disco but was unprepared for the intimacy and sweet strangeness in this recording.

Julius Eastman Unjust Malaise
A life-changing collection of prescient music from a singular talent. There are so many standouts in this collection that it’s hard to choose a favorite.

And some assorted highlights from the year’s listening:

The Hub The Hub & Wreckin’ Ball
Tim Perkis/John Bischoff Artificial Horizon
Some of the synthesized sounds on these records date them, yet no one has better explored the potential for musicking with communication technology. The Hub is still at the heart of the genre, and sadly the genre is still too small. Maybe all those laptop orchestras with their hemi speakers will carry on some this work. They would do well to revisit these recordings.

Junior Kimbrough and the Soul Blues Boys All Night Long
Languorous sound that builds a Calatrava-style bridge between a juke-joint in Mississippi and the sacred sites of minimalism, drone and raga. On second thought, maybe that juke-joint in Mississippi IS a sacred site of minimalism, drone and raga.

Art of Field Recording Volume I
Another Dust to Digital release. I lived with these recordings for most of the year–and won’t be forgetting them soon.

Gloria Coates Symphonies Nos. 1, 7 and 14
This was recommended to me when it first came out. I’m sorry I missed it until this year.

Books

This is Your Brain on Music by Daniel Levitan was probably the most fun I’ve had thinking about music and sound in a while. His Six Songs is less interesting/convincing, but a good intro to questions about music and evolution.

I enjoyed John Adams‘s Hallelujah Junction more than I expected, based on my experience with Adams’ music. (When will John Luther Adams write a book?) I found his tales about his origins and development illuminating and his writing refreshingly frank. It was especially interesting to read about his life in San Francisco during the 1960s which leads to…

The San Francisco Tape Music Center: an excellent overview of an under-appreciated group of electronic music pioneers and their fascinating intersections with popular culture. This collection puts a new spin on the usual Columbia/Princeton/Bell Laboratory history of electronic music in the US.

Music Technology

I expected 2009 to be about Max for Live, but I never got around to buying Live and then had no reason to get Max for Live. Instead, the one piece of music gear that’s made the most impact on my work in 2009 is an 1860’s style fretless tackhead banjo built by Eric Prust.

Back to the software side, the most notable music software I used this year was for the iPhone

Cleartune is easily the best tuner I’ve ever used. It still makes me a little giddy at how wonderful it is to be able to switch between equal tempered tunings and all manner of Pythagorean, just, meantone and historical tunings. My trusty clip-on tuner finally died this year; I’m not sure I’ll replace it.

SoundLevel is a free, bare-bones sound level meter app. I haven’t upgraded to SoundLevel Pro because the free app does me just fine. The convenience of always having a sound level meter on hand means that I’m much more likely to use it. In fact, it’s become an important step every time I set up a PA or go to a friend’s house to listen to mixes. Not to mention the ability to quickly check how loud that blender really is–time to put in earplugs!

On the productivity/inspiration side of things, OmniFocus for iPhone is essential for me. And the iPhone’s built-in Voice Memos app has become my favorite way to capture a sonic idea or lyric phrase–if only there were a better way to offload those files to my machine rather than having to go through iTunes…

Looking ahead to 2010

Maybe 2010 will be my time for Live and Max for Live. I’ve just started dipping into the Pinewoods International Collection of folk tunes and I expect the book will occupy me for most of next year. I’m hoping that by 2011 I’ll be able to frail my way with ease through all those odd time signatures. Finally, I’m looking forward to making more field recordings with my recently beefed-up rig which now includes a Fostex FR2-LE and a Rode Blimp.

More Wichita Mind Control

Jason Cosco was kind enough to post a video of me performing Wichita Mind Control for bent electronics with MaxMSP at the Upstate Artist’s Guild Gallery last April. This was the premiere performance of the piece. Though my pieces often changes incrementally (or sometimes substantially) as I continue to perform them, this first shot at WMC still feels definitive to me.

Here’s audio of the same performance (previously posted here)

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Wichita Mind Control – Estate Capital

Holland Hopson at Signatures – Art Night at Proctors

I’ve been remiss posting about this event, but below is a last-minute blurb. If all goes well, this will be the premiere of my new 6-channel hemispherical speaker. I’ll post more on that project soon.

Art Night at Proctors Flyer

Art Night at Proctors Flyer

Holland Hopson plays music for banjo and electronics at Signatures Wine Bar, Proctors in Schenectady on Friday December 18th, 5:30pm – 9pm.

Holland’s music for banjo expands traditional Appalachian tunes and techniques with live interactive electronics. Expect a mix of old-time banjo music and ambient electronic improvisations–Roots music for the 21st century. Holland was last seen at Proctors opening for kraut rock legends Faust.

Friday’s performance is part of Art Night at Proctors.

“…vocalist-banjo player Holland Hopson magnificently melded old-timey roots music with 21st century technology…”
–Greg Haymes, The Albany Times Union

Making Tracks for the TrackBox

I saw this “cyber” Monday special from audioMIDI.com: Nomad Factory’s Blue Tubes Trackbox for $15 (expires Sunday 12/6). I downloaded it to see if it might replace the TubeMP 12AX7 tube preamp I use between my banjos and audio interface. I use the preamp to soften the tone of the admittedly harsh piezo contact mics I use on my banjos. Driving the tube a little harder provides some welcome compression and the limiter helps tame the spiky sounds from a piezo on a frailed banjo.

In my initial tests, I’ve been pleasantly surprised with how well the TrackBox nails the tube sound–a little goes a long way. And the 4-band parametric equalizer seems eminently usable. Testing it as a VST in Max 5 it used about 7% of my CPU (an aging PowerPC G4) with all the bells and whistles turned on and was closer to 4% with only the tube and EQ running.

I’m not convinced I’ll leave my tube hardware at home just yet–without a hardware limiter in front of my audio interface I  have to drop the input level significantly to avoid clipping. By the time I’ve pulled the level back up I’ve also introduced some noise. The tone-shaping potential of the EQ and compressor might be worth it, especially if I need to travel light. In the meantime, it’s nice to have another channel strip color.