On the “One”

Here’s some words of wisdom from Bootsy Collins, which highlights one of my biggest musical struggles:

Keeping things in time is necessary for music with repetitive phrases, or riffs – pretty much the foundation for most popular music. You can go by “feel” when you’re playing live with other musicians, but it’s a bit different when you play alone in your bedroom with a bunch of electronic gadgets – it isn’t easy to play together to create a recognizably musical composition. Its useful to have a way that instruments can communicate with each other so they can reliably respond to each other’s timing to anchor abstract jams, or trigger actions at appropriate intervals.

Fortunately, there is a language they can use to communicate – MIDI (this doesn’t necessarily simplify things, since instruments speak a variety of different dialects). But not all my instruments (eg; guitar) are MIDI enabled, and the only way I can layer them is by recording loops, and playing them back using triggers. My current studio/performance setup desperately lacks a reliable method of sampling audio loops in a way that follows Bootsy’s funk formula – i.e, start together on the”one”. This could be solved by having a master clock source (the volca beats drum machine) trigger recorded audio at the start of every drum sequence, or multiples of the same. There are a few tools that can help you do these with hardware gear, from Ableton to fancy loopers with MIDI capability – but I would have to empty my wallet to obtain them, and where’s the fun in that?

A few months ago I built the Where’s the Party At? sampler – which is amazingly featured for an inexpensive, lo-fi DIY project. It has a pretty thorough MIDI implementation and I was able to get loop syncing going pretty easily via an axoloti patch. It triggers the default recorded note every few bars, and I can control the parameters by which they synchronize – which allows me to new melodies and patterns.

There are less complicated methods of doing the same thing – but this makes it fun, and the axoloti is still free to run other things, like a live sampling patch (for some chaotic sample-ception). Here is a simple clip I recorded with this setup, using just my voice and the volca beats for sounds (voice -> axoloti [with a sampler patch] -> WTPA2 [MIDI in via the volca]).

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M(idi)bira

A few years ago, I bought a kit of Jason Hotchkiss’s Le Strum midi controller project. It’s been lying around in various stage of incompleteness since then, as I’ve been trying to figure out what to do with it.

Here is the first usable prototype – I tried to make the enclosure a cross between a guitar, an accordion and a kalimba. This is how the controller works:With your left hand, you select the chords you want to be mapped onto the spokes, while your right plucks the notes you want to play from those chords. The chord keys are mapped out in a circle of fifths, as in an accordion, while the notes get mapped onto the spokes in triads over a range of octaves. Combinations of keys allows you to choose chords with added voicings, like major/minor/dom 7ths, and add4/add6 chords.

As for the name – an Mbira is another name for the family of instruments the kalimba belongs to, so MIDIbira seemed appropriate.

Here’s a brief video:

Guitar/kalimba MIDI thing #lestrum

A post shared by Saurabh Levin (@saurabhlevin) on

Fun thing I discovered while 3d printing the enclosure – if I angled the parts at 45*, no extra support layers were printed, which greatly reduced my print times.

Potential updates:

  • A wooden enclosure instead of a 3d printed mess
  • Laser engraving faceplate with labels
  • Redoing the entire thing as a MIDI foot controller (eek – but this could be really useful, as a guitarist who likes to have my hands free)

Banana Apparatus Mixer/Patchbay

Here is a fun utility box I made sometime last year that that’s been seeing quite a bit of use. It’s a patchbay with two channels of mixer and splitter circuits, which allows me to mix and play with signals in a hands on, and (relatively) hassle free manner.

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It consists of 6 X 1/4″ -> 1/8″ jack convertors, which allows for easy patching for multiple effects pedal loops (3, usually) using the mix of patch cables. Different signal loops can be blended and split using the mixer modules on top. The blending can even be controlled via an expression pedal, which allows for some interesting effects.

This Document contains the schematic I used for the mixer/splitter: Splitter Build Doc

The mod to control the blending via a footpedal isn’t too complicated. When the expression pedal jack is inserted at the top, a switching jack disconnects the blend knob and rewires the leads to the expression jack instead. This image helps visualize it.

Modded Voice Looping toy

A friend got this fun voice looping toy from the souvenir shop at MoMA that lets you record 3 second long clips and play them back. It has a pitch/speed shifting dial, which is fun, but it does lack one or two features that could make it pretty usable. To remedy that, I added an option for line out, and a toggle switch instead of the pushbutton, so that it could play back a given loop infinitely. Here’s a quick test of the same:

Gear: Hacked MoMA voice box-> MXR Blue Box-> Digitech hardwire looper

fridaynightmauves

i thought i had lost this recording, but thankfully found it sometime last week. It’s again in a stream-of-consciousness form of improvising – i’ve noticed it’s a form where i sometimes get confused as to the distinction between speaking through my guitar, and speaking to it.
I was in a sort of a creative slump when i recorded this…it helped me realize that one of the best ways to get around a feeling of being uncreative and generally useless is to just express exactly that feeling :)

lying still, feet in water

Another idea that I’ve never bothered to flesh out fully… but honestly,i quite like it like this.
This was relatively simple to make, I was attempting to create something along the lines of Brian Eno’s and Robert Fripp’s ambient work (although they did it with analogue tape-delay processes), and i ended up with this after a few overlays and filters.

The title doesn’t really suggest it, but a lot behind this piece was a memory i have of viewing kanchejunga from Pelling (Gangtok). Around sunrise, the mountain’s colour changes steadily, from a grey barely distinguishable from the sky, to a brilliant golden yellow, before it’s all too suddenly obscured by clouds.
I’m not very focussed when it comes to naming things, so i titled with something that somehow evokes a very similar emotion for me :)