musical sketchbook 15

Today’s sketch is about as cliched as they come, but I still dig it. I used an open-source vocoder, and while the results are a bit rough, that may be due to other factors, such as the low quality of the vocal recording using the Rock Band mic. I used a simple sawtooth from the Blofeld as the “carrier” sound, playing it to get the changes in pitch — the pitch in your voice when using a vocoder is discarded, so the result would have been monotone if I just held the same note, regardless of what pitch I sang.

Getting this all working is actually a bit fiddly at the moment, since it involves taking audio from two separate sources — my sound card (for the carrier signal from the Blofeld) and the USB mic — and that’s only really possible in the very latest version of JACK, which won’t be rolled in to Ubuntu until the 9.04 release next month. For now, I had to compile the latest JACK myself, and then convince all of the apps involved (the vocoder itself, JACK Rack, to amplify the signals prior to vocoding, and TimeMachine to capture the results) to use that instead of the standard version.

musical sketchbook 14

I played around more with yesterday’s string synth sound for today’s sketch, and with some modifications I think I got it pretty close to the sound of the Polymoog in Gary Numan’s Cars. I recorded it as two parts — the lead part, which I recorded straight, and the counterpoint, which I ran through a phaser effect just like the original recording.

musical sketchbook 13

Another quick one today — I took a shot at synthesising string sounds, and I’m pretty happy with how it came out. It doesn’t sound much like a real string ensemble, but it’s not really meant to. Instead, it’s another one of those “emulation of an emulation” deals, aiming for something like the string synthesisers of the 70s. In the same way that a Rhodes sounds great without sounding a whole lot like a real piano, those old string synth sounds are very nice, even if they don’t sound like an orchestra.

musical sketchbook 11

I’ve been thinking a bit about old-school game music lately, so I tried my hand at some chip music for today’s sketch. The sounds are all very simple — a square wave arpeggio and a sawtooth lead, both with minimal filtering, and some filtered white noise for a drum — hacked up with the Blofeld’s “sample-and-hold” effect to reduce the sample rate and give them a rough, retro edge.

It was an interesting exercise, but I’m not sure I’ll go any further down this track for a while. Growing up with Amigas, old-school game music for me is all about sampling, with complex sounds recorded and played back at low bitrates, rather than basic sound waves. I might be able to get that “crunchy” lo-fi sampled sound with the sample-and-hold effect on the Blofeld, run against proper synth sounds, but I think I’d need to sample and process the results to get the sound I’m after.

musical sketchbook 10

I grabbed the Rock Band mic tonight and did some drum sampling for today’s sketch, whacking things with other things, recording the results, and turning them in to a Hydrogen drum kit. Most of the sounds were just a result of me flicking or running my fingers across the metal frame of a pedestal fan, but the kick/tom sound is me hitting myself in the head with an empty 600mL Sprite bottle.

I tried hitting the Sprite bottle with a bunch of other things, but it just sounded flat — I couldn’t get that nice deep sound with anything other than my forehead. I’m not sure what that says about my head, but it’s probably bad.

musical sketchbook 09

Nothing quite as elaborate as yesterday’s multi-track creation today, but instead just a bit of a bass sound — about the fattest bass I could make on the Blofeld. Any deeper and we’d be hitting the brown note for sure.

I used two pulse waves with random LFOs applied to modulate their pitches to simulate oscillator drift on an old analogue synth, and a sine wave an octave down to give it more depth. I also enabled six-voice unison mode with some detuning to further fatten the sound.

musical sketchbook 08

More abstract wankery for today’s sketch, expanding on yesterday’s. There’s some bass and a weird piano sound in there now, but I still wouldn’t call it terribly musical, and all it manages to evoke is a feeling of tension (and probably a few headaches!). It was an interesting exercise in mixing, though — there are a good few effects in play, and a lot of filtering and EQ to bring the sounds together in to a whole.

musical sketchbook 06

A short sketch tonight, some drums that are remarkable not for how they sound but how they were played. It’s Hydrogen again providing the sounds, but controlled using the Rock Band drums from my 360. It shows, too, since my drum-whacking definitely doesn’t match the precision of a sequencer.

Hooking the controller up was the tricky part — the old “xpad” driver in the Linux kernel is useless, but there’s a new driver called xboxdrv, and it worked a treat. From there, I used a tool called joy2key to convert the drum thwacks in to keypresses for Hydrogen. The next step I’d like to take (another day!) is to see if there’s a similar joystick to MIDI tool, to skip all this nasty virtual keypress business.