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Archive for November, 2014

Hardware projects

Somehow I seem to have got involved in making hardware…

I’m not entirely sure how this happened, I’ve usually avoided anything more physical than soldering sockets. As a programmer in my day job (yes, I know I said I wasn’t going to talk about it here, but it’s germaine for once) I always went by the ancient maxim “Beware programmers who carry screwdrivers”. However, the advent of cheap, small and easily programmable microcontrollers has changed that. Arduino controllers can be had for as little as £15, the sensors and interfaces are very cheap and a lot of the hard(ware) work is already done for you so it’s still mostly software!

So I bought an Arduino Uno board and a few pieces of hardware to have a play. The first thing I got for it was an LCD touch screen ‘shield’. This had the advantage for a newbie that no soldering or even wires were needed to get things going. You just sit the screen on top of the controller and connect the latter to the computer over USB. The programming language is basically C++ so something I’m very familiar with.

Once I thought I was familiar with the concepts of the Arduino and programming I got onto (slightly) more advanced things. I connected some light and distance sensors to the Uno using a solderless breadboard (though I had to solder the headers onto the sensor boards)

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Arduino Uno reading data from a distance sensor, and two light sensors, one colour.

This project is part of a larger idea that I’m working on with Stuart as part of CSMA, to develop a light-controlled synthesizer installation. The sensors return RGB and white values to a Max program running on a laptop which uses that to drive a spectral synth that Stuart is developing. The distance sensor would detect if people are in the vicinity of the installation and react to their presence in some subtle way.

There is a lot of work yet to do with this project but I’ve enjoyed ‘getting my hands dirty’ for a change and developing actual physical things rather than just software or sounds, even though sounds are, currently, still the ultimate product. Another project I am working on is a USB to CV box (again Arduino based) that will be able to drive analogue synthesizers from the computer using OSC or MIDI. That’s hardly radical I know, but it will be useful.

I can see me doing plenty of other things with this technology and have some ideas for exiting things already! I’ll probably stick with microcontroller-based solutions rather than pure hardware ones as that’s where I have most expertise … watch this space 🙂

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Ben Frost

I’ve only been aware of Ben Frost for a couple of years now. I found him on one of my occasional bandcamp trawls for new music and was captivated immediately. I don’t know what genre those who insist on such things would use for him, I suspect ‘noise’ might be nearest. But he is so much more than that. Here is someone who uses modern electronic techniques with all the rigorous discipline of a trained composer with the energy and raw power of a heavy rock musician.

Last night I saw him play in Leeds at the Howard Assembly Rooms (which a couple of days earlier had hosted the beautiful baroque voice of Emma Kirkby!) and it has to have been the loudest gig I’ve ever been to, it wouldn’t surprise me if the audience of ‘Dirty Dancing’ in the main Grand Theatre heard parts of it too! Teaming up with a drummer and playing mostly laptop himself, with occasional guitar, this was certainly a high-energy concert; even the quiet parts were punctuated by strobe flashes as if to provide beats where the drummer was not playing. But mostly it was quite full-on, a physical feeling even for the audience. Despite being sat down for the whole time I still felt exhausted and sweaty at the end … and it wasn’t a hot auditorium!

The beauty of the acoustic in the Howard Assembly Rooms also seemed to help here, oddly. I think it added to the grandeur of Frosts’s tone with the deep resonances of the extensively used Moog Minitaur bass synth, and the extremely powerful tom and kick drum hits. The hall has old-fashioned windows but a modern, light-wood decor which unites ancient and modern, and this music is VERY modern. It’s powerful, visceral, dissonant, polyrhythmic and almost a modern, secular religious experience. While the rest of the audience filed out at the end of the performance I sat there for another 15 minutes just saying ‘amazing’, to the man in the seat behind me 🙂

I took some photos which I’ve pasted below, but first here’s a link to his latest album ‘A U R O R A’.

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A couple of weekends ago I went to the di_stanze mini festival of electronic music and, on the Sunday evening, to see Steve Hackett’s ‘Genesis Revisited’ tour. Not much in common there you might think: new experimental electronic pieces in a classical concert hall, followed by a rock guitarist and his band playing music from the early 1970s. That would be a mistake. In fact the proximity in time of the concerts only served to highlight their similarities for me.

The major difference was that the music at di_stanze was all (to my knowledge) new pieces and the Genesis pieces were around 40 years old, but it’s important to note that they were in new arrangements. Steve Hackett makes no attempt to faithfully recreate the sound of the 1970s band, these pieces are truly ‘revisited’ using all the modern technology and techniques of a 21st Century rock band with considerable instrumental technique and knowledge of electronic music techniques from samplers & synthesizers to guitar pedals, guitar synthesizers and vocal effects.

One of the performers at di_stanze was the excellent Will Baldry, a hip-hop DJ who is using his turntables in new ways  to perform classically structured pieces and poetry to great effect. This shows the ‘classical’ world embracing and learning from other genres, The opposite also happens – Genesis’s 1970s material drew heavily from classical structures and ideas.

Steve Hackett’s extensive use of the Whammy pedal at the later concert brought to mind a piece by the normally brilliant Danish composer Simon Steen-Andersen who once used that pedal in a rather arch and slightly strained ‘one idea’ way that many classical composers seem to when adopting a new technology. By contrast Steve, like most rock musicians, is at home with new technology and it is fully integrated into the music so much that unless you know what is going on you might not even notice. it’s this seamless integration of technology into music that is often lacking in ‘classical’ compositions even today. I am pleased that this was (mostly) not the case at di_stanze.

One of the things that many classical musicians seem not have go the hang of is synthesizers. The only synth performance at di_stanze was an unimaginative piece of live-coding into a Juno polysynth. I wish people using this sort of equipment would listen to, and learn from, performers such as Roger King (of the Steve Hackett band) who use multiple synthesizers (soft, and hardware) to make real, high quality music, and not just a collection of sounds.

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