A nifty art piece by David Fodel that uses an old arcade game console and elements of my Max/MSP project Sinewave Workshop to produce a unique installation. Very cool to say the least; check it out:
Archive for the ‘unusual instruments’ Category
For over ten years, I’ve had this instrument without knowing what it was or where it came from (at least before the music shop in Carrboro, NC that sold it to me used for $20):
Weird looking right? And truly possibly the first “weird” instrument of my collection, if you don’t count the Appalachian mountain dulcimer I made at camp as a kid.
It has four “bass” strings, mounted on a jawari, or “buzz” bridge— the kind you might find on a sitar. When you pluck one of these strings there is a very long sustain with an oriental twang like you might hear in Indian music.
It also has eleven treble strings, mounted across a more normal style bridge, and which make a sharp turn across a series of screws to the end of the box, where somewhat flimsy tuners control their pitches. Someone had installed a “BB Jr.” stick-on pickup. And, it came with a charmingly old-fashioned velvet-lined case.
It was definitely a handmade instrument; the tuners and screws were the only part that appeared to be factory-made. So, I assumed that it was someone’s DIY project that was getting into instrument building and was quite good at it, but wanted to make something really strange and original. I’d assumed it was one-of-a-kind.
For the first 5 years I had it, it was a novelty, not knowing how to tune it or play it. Occasionally it was pulled out to make weird Chinese-sounding plucking noises.
After listening to Ravi Shankar a lot for a few years, though, and then attempting to learn to play a sitar, I realized that this was meant to be an accompaniment instrument, much like the harmonium or tanpura (also known as tambora or tamboura; I don’t attempt to pick a spelling). Tuning the four “bass” strings to the same notes that a tanpura might play sounded really, really good; and knowing that sitar players tuned their 11 sympathetic strings to subsequent notes of whichever scale they are playing in, then it followed that these 11 strings could be tuned similarly. They can be played then, much as a harp or zither, or just left alone to resonate in sympathy with the drone strings.
You can hear it all over the Murmur release Fermata, most noticably the first 12 minutes or so of the second track “Description of the Between.”
It’s also on “OTIII”, the last track of Chef Menteur’s The Answer’s In Forgetting. The tamboura side of the sound is buried beneath banjos and harmonium, but the harp side of the instrument can be heard clearly in the second minute.
You can listen to both tracks online. The links to each song are at the bottom of each page. In both cases we tuned it to open E-flat, as that’s the only key the harmonium we have will drone in. In the liner notes, we listed the instrument as “tamboura/zither box.”
Just this week, I got an email from Dan with a link to another site where the name is clearly listed. It is:
Here’s a page on Flickr that he found with the instrument’s name and photo. It also hints at the origin of the instrument as a hybrid or synthesis of two instruments:
- the drone side is a box tanpura (pictures/shop )
- the harp side is a kind of box zither called a swarmandal or surmandal (Wikipedia | pictures and tuning info). The swarmandal, according to the Wikipedia entry was the instrument producing the harp sound on many of my favorite Beatles songs, including both my wife’s and my all-time favorite song “Strawberry Fields Forever”, as well as “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” and the brilliant (but often maligned) Harrison composition “Within You Without You.”
This was very pleasing to read, though not wholly surprising, because it meant that we’d arrived at an understanding of the instrument that’s very close to its common use and purpose in a very organic way by trial and error and deduction; however it did take lots of patience and experimentation with tuning pegs and tuners and a few years messing about with the thing.
Just heard an interesting story on NPR about a Georgia Tech professor’s algorithmic modeling of improvisational styles of jazz musicians like Thelonious Monk and John Coletrane. (I’ve been working on a really basic thing in Max/MSP that can play like Terry Riley on A Rainbow in Curved Air).
There’s video on their site as well with a robot that plays the marimba. Check it out.
I have finally got something that I made in Max/MSP that I like well enough to send out into the world.
This project was started many months ago under the somewhat tongue-in-cheek name “potpie simulator”, and although I have left some visual artifacts to spice up the interface, I changed the name to “Sinewave Workshop” because it simulates my controversial musical friend potpie no more than a stack of AC/30’s and a Les Paul simulates Brian May of Queen. It does simulate his most famous (and crowd-dispersing) setup, such as I remember from the many times Chef Menteur played a show with him, but it differs from a few important ways as well.
The bank of sliders allowing you to add harmonics via additional oscillators (and detune them) is not a feature of the classic potpie setup, but would be similar to running the signal through the Electro Harmonix POG or HOG pedals. In addition, the knobs above the sliders give you the ability to detune each oscillator slightly for that groovy “beating” sound common in analog synthesizers and tube/transistor organs.
There is an onscreen mini-keyboard you can use to set the sine wave generator to exact note frequencies (equal temperament, A=440Hz), and you can even attach a MIDI keyboard and play the notes that way for an organ-like sound. If you have a MIDI fader box or other controller you can use that to change the volume and tuning of each slider and detune knob in the harmonics section. I have an Evolution (now M-Audio) UC33e that I use for this.
The range knob on the emulated sine wave generator does not multiply by factors of 10, but by factors of 4, which means that each turn of the knob will raise or lower you by two octaves instead of some non-musical ratio.
There is a little bit of vibrato modulating the sine wave. (I plan to add a switch or knob to change this.)
The delay section simulates one pedal, you can turn off the incoming sample by clicking the light blue square button (or hitting the spacebar) and the delay will continue to cycle. To really get the “potpie sound”, turn the mix up to 100% and the feedback to 90%, and only let sound through sporadically with the button or spacebar (changing notes in between).
Possible future improvements:
- square wave option
- Multiple delays, including an 8-second one to simulate the DigiTech 8001.
- Delays with white noise and 12-bit sampling (for that old school grungy digital sound).
- Vibrato depth/rate control.
- Wii-remote control. (Actually I already had this working, but was so hard to set up the Wiimote that I removed it for now.)
- OSC control… so you can use your iPhone to control it.
- An “organ” version that allows you to play chords with MIDI keyboard and releases notes when key is released.
- A Max For Live version
Download link for this project is below. It requires Mac OS X 10.4 to run as a stand-alone app. If you have Max/MSP (version 5 or above) you can download the max collective:
Enjoy, and please let me know how you like it. I’d appreciate any feedback (no pun intended) from both people wanting to use it as a simple musical instrument and folks who are familiar with Max and take a look at my patch. Note that I have Max For Live and “borrowed” the delay line patch from one of the tutorial sessions; my much more simple one had noticable clicks when you changed the delay time.
I was looking at the site logs for Backporch Revolution and noticed that a lot more hits were coming in from YouTube. It seems that people have recently been taking an interest in my good friend Bryan Killingsworth’s “Sound Patterns” series. This got me looking at them again, and remembering how cool this experiment was.
Using a laser pointer, plastic wrap, and a metal bowl for the visuals, Bryan cranked up his modular analog synthesizer and made some trippy visual patterns that co-relate nicely to the sine waves he’s tuning.
For information on how this was done take a look. The links to the YouTube videos are at the bottom of the page.
From 1939, a Bell Labs demo of an early voice-synthesis machine.
again, using the monome and boiinngg, a quick improvisation.
it’s frighteningly easy to make get a terry riley / steve reich type thing happening.
so much fun, i could do this forever…
inseaish (6:56) mp3 9.6MB
above: the monome64, a totally configurable input/output light/button box that works with Max/MSP, chucK, OSC (Open Sound Control) and MIDI.
designed and built by hand by a couple in the catskills who are committed to open-source and sustainability (as well as a refreshing minimalistic aesthetic). with a really friendly and creative user community, there are loads of free applications for it that you can edit or add to. search vimeo for “monome” on to see what i mean.
image from monome.org.