Sunday, December 04, 2016

Synth DIY Part 2: The Noise Toaster

For my second project, I chose the Music from Outer Space Noise Toaster. This Ray Wilson design is a little synth in a box; kind of a condensed version of the classic MFOS Mini-Synth (about which I’ll write next). With one oscillator, an LFO, an ASR (Attack/Sustain/Release) section, white noise, and a legit filter with frequency and resonance control, the Noise Toaster looked like a more versatile and interactive device than the Weird Sound Generator. You can let it drone in many interesting ways, but even better, it encourages real-time tweaking. You could perhaps jam with it if you had some patient collaborators.

Here’s a recording of the Noise Toaster jamming with a drummer I know.

So, it was a more challenging project overall. I decided to make things more difficult by only ordering the circuit board and faceplate from MFOS. I felt confident I could source the other components myself because (a) I had two electronics supply stores in my neighbourhood, and (b) Ray’s book Make: Analog Synthesizers includes a whole chapter on building the Noise Toaster, with lots of pictures of the wiring and components. When faced with a wall full of potentiometers at the store, for example, I’d have a pretty firm idea of what I was looking for, and if I wasn’t sure, I could ask the folks at the stores.

Although ordering just the PCB and faceplate was cheaper than getting the whole kit, I definitely did not save any money on the project overall by buying the parts myself. If I’d had the confidence to order my parts online, I might have saved a bit—ordering the three 100k resistors I needed would have cost less than having to buy a bag of 10 at the store—but I learned a lot by going out in person and hunting things down.

The biggest pain, funnily enough, was finding the knobs. The pots I bought turned out to have stems that were too tall for the many cool-looking knobs at my favourite store. I bought a couple that had the old-school Moog style I was after (seen on the filters here), and they just perched on the pots like mushroom caps when I put them on—not flush with the faceplate as desired. Bummer. I did find the right ones once the store got some fresh stock in, well after I’d finished the rest of the project.

Also for this project, I bought a proper soldering station. My first iron had no temperature control. It seemed to get too hot, and the solder would boil. If I was going to be putting in heat-sensitive transistors and diodes, then I wanted to be able to back off the temperature a bit. So, this soldering station joined my mobile workshop. It’s rather dodgy, in that the first one I brought home did not work at all, but the replacement has behaved well since.

The box construction went much better this time. I used a simple design and learned that pre-drilling the pieces before inserting screws prevented the wood from splitting. Who knew? I also discovered a power saw in our shed, and that saved me a lot of time and trouble.

Here’s the result. Like the WSG, it worked straight away. It has an internal speaker, which in theory lets you play the Noise Toaster any time, anywhere. However, the speaker stopped working a couple weeks after finishing the project. I haven’t bothered troubleshooting it because I’m happy just plugging it into my recording interface whenever I want to use it.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Thumbscrew—Convallaria (Cuneiform, 2016)

The second Thumbscrew album goes further out than their debut. The trio of Mary Halvorson (guitar), Michael Formanek (double bass) and Tomas Fujiwara (drums) sound like they’re challenging each other, striving to push beyond their comfort zone. This is a much more adventurous record that’ll take several listens to fully appreciate. Passages where they lock in and rock out happen infrequently; however, Halvorson still cranks up the distortion and warp-effect pedal regularly. Her playing gets ever more dextrous and articulate, from the bit-crushed terror sonics of “Screaming Piha,” to the heavy-riffed mid-section of “The Cardinal and the Weathervane,” to the elegant virtuosity of the title track. Convallaria emphasizes what a perfect match this trio are for each other. They operate at a level most groups can only dream of.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Synth DIY, Part 1: The WSG

I was really into building model cars as a kid. My bedroom shelves were filled with 1/24 scale funny cars, dragsters and other exotic miniature automobilia from Revell or Monogram. In the years leading up to giving up the hobby, I was making more elaborate F1 car kits from Tamiya. I loved the activity (and I fully credit my immersion in model kit instructions and diagrams with inspiring my career as a technical writer), but there was a limit to what I could do with the tools and the money and the space I had available. On top of everything else, I was more into rock 'n' roll than farting around with plastic models.

That urge to make stuff has always been there, so when I discovered the world of synth DIY, it seemed like the perfect thing. You mean I can stick together a bunch of pieces from a kit and then make noise with the finished product? Let’s get cracking! I recalled enough of my Grade 8 Electronics class to remember that it was basically super fun to solder. That LED Roulette Wheel I made for my final project didn’t look like much, but it worked from the get-go.

I’d been looking at videos for devices like the Sleepdrone 5, and the idea of a simple noise box really appealed to me. Eventually I found what looked like an ideal first project for me: The MusicFrom Outer Space Weird Sound Generator (or WSG). It had four oscillators that could be tuned somewhat musically, along with LFOs (Low Frequency Oscillators) to mess with the main oscillators and produce various rhythmic/tremolo effects, and a basic filter to produce that classic synth “frequency sweep” akin to a guitarist's wah-wah pedal. The WSG was more versatile than the other drone boxes I’d seen, and it came as a complete kit. The only part I'd have to make from scratch was a wooden case to house the faceplate, circuitboard and clumps of wiring when I’d finished.

I sent my money to Ray Wilson, the genius behind MFOS, and the kit arrived soon after. After buying a few tools (a $20 soldering iron, solder, and wire snips from The Source), I took everything up to my family’s place on Mayne Island and got to work.

[Note: Ray Wilson passed away from cancer earlier this year. Like I say, he was a genius and a true DIY guru. His book Make: Analog Synthesizers was a huge help, and I recommend it highly if you’re thinking of getting into this sort of thing. This series of blog posts is dedicated, with thanks, to Ray.]

Oh, I forgot to say that, in order to reacquaint myself with soldering, I first built a very simple metronome from a kit I got from my neighbourhood electronics shop. Even though the thing consisted of about eight parts, it was still a thrill to plug in the battery and hear it emit a faint “click, click, click”. My Grade 8 regression was complete!

Here are some pictures I took of my WSG build as it progressed.

Preparing the front panel. Everything laid out in true anal fashion.

The circuit board's almost done, save for the ICs. Compared to some of the soldering insanity I've put myself through lately, this looks really simple in retrospect!

Preparing the front panel.

Wiring up the front panel. This is the trickiest part of all the MFOS projects I've done.

A successful first test.

The biggest challenge was building the box. I came up with this cunning angled design, but it turns out that I'm a useless draftsperson and my woodworking skills are no better. You can't imagine how much anguish it caused, fashioning four small pieces of wood together to form a (rough) square. The black paint hides a shitshow of splinters, splits and mangled nail heads. 
Next post: The Noise Toaster.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Film In Music—Tell Tale (Drip Audio)

Film in Music, formed in 2009 and led by cellist Peggy Lee, includes a formidable bunch of heavy hitters from the local jazz/improv/creative music scene. When you note that Jesse Zubot, Chris Gestrin, Ron Samworth and Dylan Van Der Schyff all contribute, no preview listening is required. You already know this will be good. Seeing them perform this album live earlier this month reminded me of cinematic post-rockers Do Make Say Think (whatever happened to them?), albeit at a much lower volume. Other bands come to mind as well; for example, “Epilogue to Part 1” roils along like Tortoise. The album intersperses full-band material with individual or small group performances. On his solo piece “Gruesome Goo,” Torsten Muller (acoustic bass) produces squeaks, growls and rattles from his instrument—suddenly you’re trying to bunk down in the world’s most haunted attic. Equally eerie is “Egg Hatched” by Gestrin/Lachance/Samworth. Based on the threatening pulses, plinks, and echoes presented, you don’t wanna know what entity has pecked its way out of that egg, that’s for sure. To label Van Der Schyff’s “An Eyeball for Dan” as a drum solo is accurate but inadequate, such is the avalanche of sonic surprises that tumbles forth. The TV series Deadwood was the inspiration, says the liner notes. By and large, the album’s tracks evoke a kind of Old West desolation. Even the jaunty moments are undercut with yearning for better times. Bursts of dissonance generate tension, hinting that not everything will be all right.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

A Difficult 2015—Reissues and Archival Releases

2015 was such a lousy year for music that I found most of my fun in the reissues pile. Each one of these was an exciting discovery.

Alice Coltrane—Universal Consciousness (Superior Viaduct)
This is a fantastic reissue of Coltrane’s 1971 album for Impulse!—one which Fact magazine declared the third best album of the 1970s. The music shimmers and prickles you, surging in ways that I can’t comprehend—how do you play like that? The spiritual journey that Coltrane describes in the liner notes isn’t something I can understand either, but I’m certainly glad it sparked the creation of this music.

Six Organs of Admittance—Dust and Chimes (Holy Mountain)
Ben Chasny is in full folk/psych acoustic splatter mode on this set originally released in 2000. A little frantic and spindly to really mellow you out, it’s mind-expanding stuff nevertheless.

Besombes/Rizet—Pôle (Gonzaï Records)
This French duo operated in the same synth/freakout realms as Klaus Schulze, Tangerine Dream and especially Heldon. It doesn`t sound like they had the latest gear (in an era when being two or three years behind could mean a lot), but they made the most of it. The original 1975 LP was a double. This reissue is a single disc, but you get the whole set of tracks with the download card.

 Soft Machine—Switzerland 1974 (Cuneiform)
Allan Holdsworth joining Soft Machine made for a heavy, volatile mix. Ace Soft Machine archivists Cuneiform Records have outdone themselves with this CD/DVD combo.

Sensations Fix—Music is Painting in the Air (1974-1977) (RVNG)
Italo/American outfit Sensations Fix were led by Franco Falsini, who returns to his cache of tapes recorded in the mid-seventies for this collection of lost tracks and remixes. The songs are driven by Falsini’s cosmic guitar playing and plentiful Minimoog. It’s whacked-out and hapless enough to have considerable obscurist allure.

Friday, April 08, 2016

2112: Side Two

There’s a scene in Freaks and Geeks where the geeks argue about the perfect movie. Sam says it’s The Jerk. Neil claims that it’s Caddyshack. No way, Sam scoffs. Caddyshack is totally inconsistent. It’s just like Stripes: “You cannot tell me what happened in the second half of that movie.”

2112 is the Stripes of classic rock albums. To say it’s front-loaded is an understatement. The first side so obsesses people that they forget that side two even exists. The 20 minute suite of songs that make up “2112” is the entire album to some fans. I’ve even seen the claim that 2112 is a concept album.

2112 is not a concept album. Side two has nothing to do with the side preceding it, unless I’m missing something. Maybe after the elder race assumes control of the solar federation, everyone celebrates by getting really high, as told in “A Passage to Bangkok.” This extension of the "2112" storyline hasn’t been widely accepted yet, so let’s go with the idea that 2112 consists of the title piece and unrelated songs on side two.

The songs in question aren’t the strongest stretch of material in the Rush catalogue either. Fly By Night might even have better short songs if you consider the kick-ass quotient of “Anthem,” “Best I Can,” “Beneath Between & Behind” and “Fly by Night.” Side two of 2112 is a mixed bag indeed. It starts and ends strongly with “A Passage to Bangkok” and “Something for Nothing.” Both were in the live set for years. “Passage…” is loveably dumb, seemingly written to get the Woodersons in their audience on board. I remember reading the lyrics for the first time and dealing with the realization that my heroes were stoners. As Morrissey once whined, I swear I never even knew what drugs were at that age.

This leaves a three-song ditch in the middle. Caress of Steel was dedicated to Rod Serling, and now “The Twilight Zone” continues the tribute. Unfortunately it’s a stitched-together and forgettable ditty. Also unfortunate is that it was the single off the album—not likely to send the roller rink into a frenzy on a hot seventies night. Frampton and Styx had nothing to worry about.

“Lessons” is a solid Fly by Night by way of “Ramble On” number elevated by Alex Lifeson’s acoustic rhythm guitar track. Peart, faced with laying down something basic in 4/4, sprinkles in a bunch of fancy fills to keep himself interested.

“Tears” is the sort of ballad they felt obliged to include for a while—think “Rivendell,” “Panacea,” and “Madrigal.” Best of the lot was “Different Strings” from Permanent Waves. For Moving Pictures and subsequent albums, the real ballady ballads were dropped.

After “Tears,” “Something for Nothing” swoops in to save the day, taking the album out on a triumphant, defiant note. Geddy howls like his throat’s about to give out, Peart throws in an 84-bar tom roll, and it’s hell yeah! Finally time to flip the album over and play side one again.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Uli Jon Roth’s Ultimate Guitar Experience, March 19 at the Venue

Any show at the Venue is a tradeoff. It’s a useful space with decent sound. I like that they do early shows. I’m totally okay with clearing out at 10:30 to make way for the clubgoers. That’s great. The down side is being merely tolerated by the club staff, who on this night left me feeling like a degenerate for daring to breathe the same air as them.

Andy Timmons started the show with a rock/fusion/Americana blend that reminded me of Morse and the Dixie Dregs at time. He played with a rhythm section who also did duties for Uli’s set. There was a tastefully arranged Beatles medley in tribute to George Martin. He talked affably to the crowd between songs and went up in my estimation by not walking off the stage when some asshat yelled for “Freebird.”

Jennifer Batten played solo, accompanied by backing tracks on a laptop and a screen that showed old film clips and animation. Her set emphasized fun rather than raw chops. For example, she mashed up Weather Report’s “Teen Town” with “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and ended her set with a medley of 50 years worth of guitar riffs, from the Ventures to Van Halen. Quite a party piece.

Uli Jon Roth left no doubt who the night’s real guitar hero was. His set was like Christmas, New Year’s Eve and my birthday all in one. He wasted no time delivering the heavy hitters—“The Sails of Charon” was the second song, followed by “We’ll Burn the Sky”, “Sun in My Hand” and “In Trance.” The band numbered seven people at times, with the singer (a huge Native American fellow who utterly ruled!) coming and going depending on the song. I can’t say Uli's Sky guitar, with its dog-whistle tones high up on the neck, is my favourite instrument, but it’s part of Uli’s whole deal, and he’s undeniably a wizard on the thing. It was a thrill to watch him work. To end the night, Timmons came out again for an all-Hendrix encore of “All Along the Watchtower” and “Little Wing.” When the set ended, having gone 15 minutes over curfew, the Venue started blasting the shittiest club music imaginable to hurry all us gross old people out the doors.
(Photo by Bob Logan)

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Bitches Brew by George Grella Jr. (33 1/3, Bloomsbury)

Talk about a daunting project! First, there's the album itself, and its dense, arcane contents. How do you even write about that music? Second, many brave people have written about that music. The corpus of Miles Davis literature is not small. There's gonna be a movie too.  Is there anything new to say about Bitches Brew?

To his credit, Grella does an excellent job within the 33 1/3 format. It does what I want every book in the series to do: hit me with a barrage of heady ideas while wedging in some worthy musical analysis.

He discusses Miles Davis's place in jazz musically and critically (he gets some good jabs in at Stanley Crouch) and within the broader popular culture. The book traces Davis's journey from Birth of the Cool into the electric era. Remarkably, Grella is able to cover all this territory without being rushed or perfunctory. When we reach In a Silent Way, Grella pauses to examine its creation, noting that it's the point where the music enters "a new and previously unimagined dimension," with Teo Macero's razor blade restructuring of open-ended source material. The music became radical, and the studio became an instrument, just as it had for most of the experimental music and cutting-edge pop of the day. Grella funnels these topics towards the book's final third, which is a dissection of Bitches Brew's two LPs and the impact the music had in the years after its release.

He even wedges in just the right amount of personal narrative. I especially liked the book's opening, which describes the author's efforts to understand the music as a teenager: "…we listened, because the dark beauty of the music and the unlimited possibilities it promised were irresistible."

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Keith Emerson (1944–2016)

I listened to ELP's debut album the weekend before Keith Emerson passed away. It crackles with energy while still being suitably indulgent and show-offy. The schmaltz factor is minimal, all in all. I think it's their best LP. It'd been years since I put it on and damn it if I didn't know that music down to the last paradiddle.

I'm sure "Lucky Man" was the first ELP song I heard on the radio. It's a simple folk song—legend has it that it was the first song Greg Lake ever wrote—crowned (or marred, if you've an affinity for the Rolling Stone Record Guide) by Emerson's Moog solo exploding out of nowhere. A humble tune is suddenly fired into an unearthly realm. That's how the album ends. Zoom, whoosh! What a sound!

My Dave Smith Instruments Mopho comes with a preset called "Fortunate Guy" that replicates that square wave magic. Let's hear a sample:

You don't need a spare room and 50 grand to make that sound, but back then you did. A lot of people were offended by that. The same people were also offended by Emerson's rocking the classics, which started when he was with The Nice. Bernstein, Copeland, Mussorgsky, Holst, and Ginistera all got the Emerson treatment. I'd like to think that he performed that music not because he intended to improve or update it, but because it rocked, plain and simple. Pictures at an Exhibition is at least as doom-laden as any Sabbath album. Why not try it with a rock band?

Everything—the instruments, the technology, the notion of "art rock"—was new when ELP were coming up; it was all a big experiment. Amazingly, stadiums full of people were feeling rather experimental too. Hammonds were stabbed, pianos flew, tympani and gongs were bashed, fancy carpets got rolled out. Critics yawned… I'm not going to argue that all of it was in good taste, but the thing about good taste is, it stops you from enjoying a lot of excellent things. Thanks for taking the music where you did, Keith.

Wednesday, March 09, 2016

Magma—Üdü Wüdü (RCA France, 1976)

I'm no Magma expert, but do know that I love their whole deal. I'm still smiling from the show they put on at the Venue last year. What the what was that? All I know is we should do that again sometime soon.

You don't often see their albums out in the wild, so I happily forked out for this copy that turned up in the new arrivals bin at Dandelion Records.

Üdü Wüdü is their sixth studio album; a return to the studio after the release of Live/Hhaï. Side one features short pieces ranging from weird sort of samba music to weird martial songs, all accompanied by Magma's characteristic Kobaïan chanting. Side two is devoted to "De Futura," an impressive epic that actually rocks, powered by composer Janick Top's frenzied, fuzzified bass playing. Though it doesn't appear to be the most well-regarded Magma LP, it's fantastic stuff, and more approachable than Mekanïk Destruktïw Kommandöh (the only other Magma studio LP I own).

Wednesday, March 02, 2016

Low by Hugo Wilcken (33 1/3, continuum)

After the shock of his death subsided, Low was the only Bowie album I listened to. It felt like a good place to go—a mysterious, elusive album with no big hits on it. I didn't feel nostalgic about it. Emotional resonance was minimal. The whole album slips past you, surreal, the production and atmosphere taking you out of place and time. It's clearly brilliant, and invites repeat listens while still keeping you at a cool distance. It was recorded in France and Germany in 1976, but Bowie, still shaking off his role in The Man Who Fell to Earth, may as well have beamed it from a planet light years away.

This book does a good job getting into Bowie's headspace at the time, drawing from secondary sources to trace his post-Station to Station career in tandem with the origin and development of the music that became Low. It was indeed a low time for Bowie—addled by cocaine psychosis and occult obsessed, his marriage was dissolving and his ability to trust even his closest collaborators often faltered. Yet the work never stopped. With the help of Tony Visconti and Brian Eno, and keeping vampiric hours, he channelled bursts of inspiration to form Low's split personality—the alien pop songs on side one and the nearly all instrumental side two.

As Eno puts it: "He was pretty much living at the edge of his nervous system, very tense. But as often happens, that translated into a sense of complete abandon in the work. One of the things that happens when you're going through traumatic life situations is your work becomes one of the only places where you can escape and take control. I think it's in that sense that 'tortured' souls sometimes produce great work."

Friday, February 26, 2016

Wheels of Steel: The Explosive Early Years of the NWOBHM

Right when I think, "Somebody should write a book about x," Martin Popoff has gone and written it. My full review is at

Thursday, February 18, 2016

The Musical Box, February 17 at the Commodore

I had a dream…I had a awesome dream…that I saw Genesis on the Selling England by the Pound tour.

Wait, that wasn’t a dream. That was last night at the Commodore. It might as well have been Genesis on stage. After seeing Quebec’s The Musical Box, I can’t really call them a tribute act. What they do goes beyond that. Their show is more like a historical re-enactment or (and this is the first and last time you’ll see this word in this blog) LARPing. It’s not “Hey, guys, you wanna get together and play some Genesis tunes?” it’s “Hey, guys, let’s BE Genesis.” The level of detail was astounding, from the lighting to the drum kit (I’d wager even the cymbals matched the specs on Collins’ early '70s setup) to the clothes (right down to the white denim overalls that “Phil” sported). An immense amount of research and devotion to this period of Genesis has obviously gone into this production.

Good thing I believed the advertised 8 PM start time, because although I didn’t get a floor seat—yes, there were rows of chairs on the dance floor—I did get a good spot to stand behind the last row. I was glad to not be the oldest old fart in the crowd for once. The place was packed with geezers, many of them sporting shirts from the last King Crimson show.

Musically, the performance was beyond criticism. I haven’t done my research, but I’m guessing this was the exact setlist from the Selling England by the Pound tour. Every nuance was captured; nothing was glossed over. Even Peter Gabriel’s between-song stories were recited word for surreal word. The material is part of my DNA by now, so there were no big surprises during the show, just little revelations here and there. For example, “The Battle of Epping Forest” really isn’t that great of a song. It earned the politest applause of the night. And I never knew that the whole last section of "The Cinema Show" was performed by just the core trio of Rutherford, Collins and Banks. This was actually the highlight of the night—a passage of pulverizing beauty. The crescendo moment was too much for one lady, who jumped up and ran up and down the aisle in an ecstatic frenzy. It was all I could do to not join her.

Overall, I rate this show 5 GIANT HOGWEEDS out of 5.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Recent Viewing

The last Cronenberg movie I watched prior to this was The Brood. Maps to the Stars contains 100 per cent less fetus licking, but is just as sick. Trust me. Hail to the master, and hail to Julianne Moore, one of the gutsiest actors of our times.

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark—Organisation (Virgin/DinDisc 1980)

My 15-year-old self wouldn’t be impressed that I’m listening to OMD these days. To hell with that kid, though; he was no fun. I sometimes consider an alternate history for myself had my parents stayed in England. Maybe my teenage years wouldn’t have been so rockist; maybe my friend that had a job might have come home with a Wasp synth one day, and our basement band would have been based around that. Or maybe, because of genetic programming, I’d still have listened to nothing but Rush, Queen, and Iron Maiden.

I picked up Architecture and Morality a little while ago, and then found a copy of Dazzle Ships after that. What strikes me about OMD is that, for a synth-pop band, they sure revel in bleak, atmospheric sounds. Organisation, OMD’s second album, is quite meek compared to those two later LPs, and less prone to dark tangents. More conventionally organised, you might say. “Enola Gay” is the most famous track, of course, a chorus-free ditty whose simplicity only hints at later, more sophisticated hits like “Joan of Arc” and “Souvenir.”

My favourite tracks end side one and begin side two. “Statues" and “The Misunderstanding” evoke Joy Division and The Cure respectively, and paint the rest of the album in the deep gray that frames the cover photo.

Monday, February 01, 2016

Marc Maron—Attempting Normal (2013)

I’ve been a WTF Podcast fan for just over a year now—Maron’s interview with Paul Thomas Anderson was the one that hooked me—so I already know a lot about the guy. His past life is a constant hum in the background of every episode. However, opening this book at a couple random pages presented things I wasn’t expecting to see.

Agh! Marc’s having weird sex! Genital constriction is happening! Agh!

Quickly flip to another page…

10-year-old Marc is getting a rectal exam! Jesus!

Run away! I didn’t sign up for this.

Anyway, the book is great, if unpleasant at many points. He does lay it all out there, which is to be expected if you’re familiar with Maron’s show. The expected straight-up autobiographical narrative never really takes hold; eventually I realized the book is a series of wryly comic essays. The chapter describing his deployment of hummingbird feeders at his house cracked me up in particular.

He can construct a fine phrase. "This is what your heroes do for you—lift you victoriously above the dirty work of life and conjure a different way of being," he says about the Velvet Underground. That's a good way to put it.

You’ll recognize bits that he’s woven into his TV series, and whatever you think of the guy already, I can’t see this book changing your mind. You’ll just know more—a  lot more—about him.