Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Newyear Fishmap

Chinese New Year

As the Chinese New Year dawns upon us this February, I find my design tank bursting with a bold and new creative circuit. Since its preparations for board printing and assembly coincide with this most auspicious of times, I ask what are the proper rites and timings for this 21st century dao?

Shenzhen is both a site of great emerging technology industry, such as my preferred PCB house, as well as the deep waters of tradition that fertilize the new year ceremonies. I received an email from the PCB house in December, warning of the upcoming bottleneck- a transition from Goat to Monkey year. The PCB house will have a delay of up to five business days during this celebration.

The nice email also detailed what sorts of things one does during this time, mostly dealing with eating. Specifically, certain fish such as the Crucian Carp are essential to have in the kitchen, as they symbolize good luck. The deep lakes and rivers of Shenzhen support this freshwater fish and the cuisine reflects it there.

Looking for deeper meanings to the new year, I turn to the Book of Changes, used by John Cage to map musics out, and hailed by Phillip K. Dick as a salve and compass for the schizophrenic spectrum. As I had already studied the oracles, I knew the most pertinent one and skipped a random toss of the yarrow sticks, turning straight to hexagram 44, one of the most mysterious.

Gou- "liason" characterizes number 44, and it is blatantly sexual, dangerous and dirty. However, there is other language in the details of this oracle, about creativity, a raging pig, meeting horns, and most importantly, the primal significance of a fish in the kitchen:

When the kitchen holds a fish: no blame. 

When there is no fish in the kitchen- danger!

Note that translators of the ancient oracle explain bao as a kitchen, but it simply means "the wrapper," as it could be a creel or grass basket for carrying the fish to the kitchen, or it could be the boiling water wrapping around it, or a steamed bun package. All these preparations inform the New Year kitchen, as carp can be soup, steamed or even in a dumpling. The idea of wrapping is important for fortune, as throughout the year one wraps and saves money and supplies for this time of bursting. The hexagram has a further note about wrapping:

A melon wrapped in willow- hidden lines. 

The melon is a sort of natural creativity, nourished and brought to completion for this time when we unwrap it. The willow is the protective package, the docket of data and schematics brought to the house. I prefer to leave "hidden lines" unexplained but note that lines also means a chapter, as in a segment of data or packet of meaning.

So at this auspicious time, armed with poetry of omen, I ask simply whether to submit my files before or after the holiday? How is a synthesizer board like a fish? If it were rectangular the meaning would be extended, but this PCB consists solely of oval shapes, and I look at it as a school of fresh carp fillets:

Karlsruhe Manifesto

2/5/2016: For a lecture on analog interfaces and design at Zentrum fur Kunst and Medientechnologie, I prepared a playful map of Karlsruhe as a circuit... The following manifesto text explains my psycho-cartographic findings, in relation to Ovalsynth.

The KARLSRUHE CIRCUIT, transcribed from a 1740 plan of the city, maps it onto an analog synthesizer. STADTPLAN is a collection of scripts and contingency improvisations. The King, resting in a circular chamber at the center of the SCHLOSS, gestures about the radiating roads, surveyed and planned according to trigonometry: a scripted landscape.

PSYCHO-GEOGRAPHY studies, by wandering and walking, how a landscape or urban architecture affects and effects a state of mind. Karlsruhe literally means, the place where Karl rested. It reflects a restful state of mind in its perfect radial symmetry, a fresh start in the country away from the clutter of the old capital. Over time, convoluted mammal tumors tucked into its corners: the DORF. Craftsmen cobbled a village together downhill and out of sight, which cemented over time with its odd organic alleys: a pragmatic growth.

The ANALOG GARTEN, a collection of twisting circuits and outbuildings, encircles the SCHLOSS. It houses various pleasure functions- pheasants, orchards, and theaters- and provides a pastoral buffer for the grand gestures of the King.

The MINISTERIEN process the King's gestures, routing them amongst themselves and connecting out to the WALD outside the circuit. These assorted nodes manifest the living gestures of the King (laws). In addition to the strict radial line lain by the olden king, winding circuitous routes develop over time- lines of escape from the official plan.

Where signals meet in the woods, synthesis!

As an oval has two foci, OVALSYNTH has two SCHLOSS, connected by a line of MINISTERIEN, taking both gestures and distributing them to nodes near and far. The ANALOG GARTEN wraps around the government providing it the pleasures of synthesis. A WALD extends out to the end of the land, where nodes realize the gestures. Two DORF, charming cultures to the side and downhill, provide the organic and alternative rhythms of festivities, merchants and crafts.1

What twin kings have ever built an oval capital? Perhaps rival binary countries or ways of being could do this, like two hands of a giant- COLDWAR BERLIN.

1For another OVALSYNTH manifesto, using the words NOB, SHMANCE, SANDRODE, and CHARM for SCHLOSS, MINISTERIEN, WALD, and DORF respectively, see eContact issue 17.4, at

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

24 Parallel PIC chips

The new "Tocante Karper" uses 24 pic chips in parallel to synthesize karplus-strong string emulations, in the Tocante scale. That scale is initially based on a very analog thing- the capacitor values in an E6 preferred number set. For example: 10, 15, 22, 33, 47 and 68 are my starting numerology. Because they are integers, and also because the frequency varies as the reciprocal of the capacitance (bigger capacitor, lower frequency), it ported over seamlessly to sixteen bit string buffers of different lengths.

I chose the pic16f1704 because it is small, efficient, and it has a DAC and even some op-amps; it's like a micro PSOC. Initially I programmed the algorithm with ADC as input, but realized since karplus-strong wants noise on the input, a vanilla i/o port would suffice. Good, that knocked a few milliamperes off of each. The 24 microcontrollers use about 12 milliamperes total. They are arranged in banks that initially run at different octave sampling rates. I said initially because you can touch some inner pads and it will scroll each string around in pitch degree and octave, on the fly, circuit bending style.

Programming the chips in parallel presented a chain of challenges that I am phewing over. For starters, there is no commercial programmer such as pickit3 that can do it, because they are bi-directional and mandate code-checking and other communications. To gang-program, you need uni-directional, a simpler interface. So I went about programming my own programmer. The work may be reused because I want to eventually have a master chip stm32f103, controlling a sea of these little pics, dynamically reprogramming them like audio ants.

Read the datasheet for pic16f1704 memory programming- it's all there, the secret code to unlock the chip, the commands to burn and erase, and how to set the configuration. I did have two multi-week headbangs. The first had to do with the specific sequence  to burn, and the second was about configuration bytes and making sure to set them. Typical pic little-headbangs that have used much brainage and forum typing in previous lives...

Not that pics are bad. I used to think they were "boyscoutish" and now I think they are just "cute."  Try programming karplus-strong without floats and multiply, and I didn't even use signed math- you know karplus doesn't need signed math like a IIR filter does? Each string has a floating ground that is contingent on the decay of the noise that was inserted into it (the decay is not by a sub-unity feedback but by sample averaging). That noise is simply anything on your finger, but it can be bolstered by the "noise of computing:" two touchpads that yield the lowest, hairiest bytes of the karplus computation.

To make sure the strings didn't drift too far to a "char boundary," I set up a nice quick bit-if on the input that flipped it in this cute non-linear way. It's noise anyway!

The scale degree and octave computations have some PC displacement math to get to an array of eight-line code blocks that set the clock and string length, and a similar code-block-array responds to interrupts on the circuit-bending inputs.

Leave out all those floats, multiplication, and boil the chip down to eight bits- well actually that was too crunchy so I moved it up to sixteen bits per sample- the chips are low power and have that sound. Glad they're still around!

Saturday, July 4, 2015

348 S Bentalou

I purchased 348 S Bentalou in 2004, for 16k dollars. The most pressing concern was a leaking back roof, that dripped water down, through the wall of the kitchen, into the basement. On its way down there, It caused the joists of both the second floor and the first floor to rot. As renovation goes, every repair has consequences that could be spun into benefits. My plan to fix this roof included a new wall for the second floor bedroom, with a picture window and special "constellation" light grills. I let my creativity go here. For the first floor, I decided to tear out the wall there, making a special, lofty and long kitchen and living room.

Continuing the wall-tearing, I consolidated the two upstairs "kids" bedrooms into one large salon. This has been a benefit of the house for many years, in its capacity to hold multiple groupings of people rather than segmenting them into cramped spaces. The upstairs holds this salon, plus a bathroom, and the back bedroom with the picture window. When I eliminated these walls upstairs and downstairs, the house was full of bags of plaster, plus the miscellaneous junk that was left there from the previous owners, including a flea market in the storefront. I had decided to load all this into a dumpster in one day. To help me with this, I had friends over and pizza was served. The hubbub attracted all sorts of neighborhood people, and I let them into the house to help clean it out. They took all sorts of junk, and by the end of the day, the house was empty.

For many years, the only bathroom was in the basement- a toilet shrouded by nary more than a bedsheet, and another room for bathing. When we had musical shows down there in the stone chamber, you could poop at the same time as listening and perhaps even conversing. The bathtub was an old cast iron clawfoot, that came with the house. I had to move it to the basement, and it stayed there for a while. It was actually quite nice to bathe down in the cool of the stone walls; it was quiet and also you felt this wonderful grounded sensation from being underground. The lighting in the basement consists of church chandeliers so there is a nice mood.

For all the years I inhabited Bentalou, I used the storefront for my work- making electronic musical instruments. It has green and red tiled floors, and extra high, fifteen foot ceilings. It had plenty of space for my table saws, planers, wood lathes, plus several workbenches. I wired it for extra power, although you rarely need extra power in this efficient day and age.

Soon after I moved in, I noticed a sign on the old tree in front, stating that the city had decided that it was dying, and they would cut it down. I tried to protest over the phone, but was told that the crew would be coming any random day in the next four months, and I would have to talk to them. Of course, they came when I was out, and I had a sad little stump in front. I remember I cried, that now the house would lack shade and the living presence of a texas honey locust tree. Fortunately, I learned of the city trees program, and applied to it. They came out, ground out the old stump, and planted a new honey locust, for only a little bit of effort on my part. Now, I'm happy to say, the tree has grown big and shades the whole front.

In the meantime of this trees growth, I decided to add extra foliage and shade to the house, by constructing planters. The main one is out front, a huge organic and tiled constructions, holding sumac trees and pawpaws. I should explain these trees if you don't already know them. They are both native to the Maryland area. Sumac was my grandmother's bane, but I learned to love it, and told her that. You can make lemonade out of its berries, or season chicken with their bright red hairs. As a micro-lumber, it displays a rainbow of green, brown, and orange colors.

The pawpaw tree was my father's obsession for a while when I was young. It grows in the shady depths of forest, an understory home for deer. It doesn't grow that large there, but it does have many fruits the shape of a small mango. Inside, the custard apple offers a fragrant and sweet yellow flesh, and several large seeds. You can eat pawpaws in august, when they ripen. The pawpaw, although it is found in the forest, can become a specimen tree when grown in the open. In the backyard of 348 S Bentalou, a pawpaw has done just that- grown very large with branches stretched out to the sun, and many pendulous fruits.

The backyard and side planter also have held many species of the solanaceae order- eggplants, tomatoes, and datura, to name a few. Across the alley, the backyard of the shopping center became an urban farm, while I lived there. I would go to food depot and ask them for fish guts, in a box for this purpose. Then I would dig ditches and plant them very deeply. Above this I planted eggplant, tomatoes, and pumpkins, which fruited profusely and enjoyed the sun and rain there.

Another heartbreak at tree-cutters happened in this back alley. I awoke one morning to hear chainsaws in the alley. Looking out I saw them coming up the line of pines, chopping them down. Fortunately they did not continue to the pines behind 348, but I was very anxious. The neighbor said that his house got that much hotter without the shade of the pines. Over the years, I have tried to replant the trees, unsuccessfully at first. The first tree I tried, a Pawlonia, was quickly "weeded" out; although it is quite a nice and showy tree, Baltimore groundsmen know it as a tenacious cracker of sidewalk and are trained to eliminate it.

It took me several years to find the right tree for the alley. It all started on one of my walks down Gwynn's Falls park, where Baltimore street flies high over the cliff of the river. Here, old Osage Orange trees grow, releasing their giant ball fruits, a cretaceous food for giant sloths, and a domestic organic spider repellant. After a heavy snowfall, I noticed that one tree had fallen. I brought my chainsaw to the scene and cut up the heavy wood, and I also saved some seeds from its balls. These seeds I nurtured over the years into sapling Osage Orange trees. Lately, I can proudly say that three of these saplings inhabit the alley behind 348 S Bentalou.

Gwynn's Falls has always been a place to relax. When I first moved to Bentalou Street, Twig took me down the path there, and showed me the old houses tumbling down its hills. There is this official driveway and bike path, that goes all the way to Dickeyville, and there is also a path down by the train-tracks. Both ways can get you to the quarry, a giant pond full of old mining structures, ducks, cliffs, giant black beetles, and other adventures.

Over the years, I installed much tile work in 348 S Bentalou- the kitchen is paved with tan and pink flags, there is a black and white hearth that doubles as staircase, the basement is partially tiled, and the upstairs bathroom features fully tiled, orange walls. The clawfoot bathtub, which moved to the upstairs bathroom, required a special curved wall behind it, which I tiled with scenes of game-birds. The hearth I mentioned, is to hold heat generated by the Sierra brand wood stove, which heats much of the house including the upstairs bedroom.

Some unseen bones of the house's utilities are a completely reconstructed electrical system, in steel conduit for extra safety. In addition, I completely redid the plumbing, and installed a tankless hot water heater. There are no peeling paint places, and a few new windows. The only old windows are grand wooden sliding affairs upstairs in the salon, featuring wooden shutters.

The most recent large renovation was part of a process started in the first renovation- making a porch where there once was a leaky roof. The first renovation included sealing this roof with EPDM rubber. Later, I constructed a patio. The final step was to build a roof over the patio, with the help of friends. We erected six walnut posts, tied with heavy joists, and over that built a roof deck. Finally, I sealed it with bituminous rubber roof. Most recently, I installed a new rubber roof over the whole house, tying it into this covered porch. The extra, outdoor room, looks out over the trees of the backyard and pines of the alley. From it, you can see the giant abandoned brewery with Pawlonias growing from its roof.

All these little touches upstairs. A curved ceiling in the salon hearkens to my grandma's attic. Bookshelves with micro-skylights behind them in the bedroom. I really wanted to make a peaceful environment for creative thinking here. When I wasn't living there, I always had creative tenants- my good friend Carson is a musician, and Nick and Shayna are artists of paint and of the herbal trade. Baltimore is a town of interesting and eclectic people, and this house reflects that.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Port Dock

In anticipation of moving location and the entailing liquidation of personal effects, I have spent a bit of time copying drawings from old notebooks onto vellum to be scanned into portable document format. Having bolstered my "portDOCK" folder with the new files in surplus of 200 pages, I decided to organize them into categories. The precursor inhabitant of the folder was a coloring book, coloring.pdf, elaborating on philosophical topics in synthesizer building with lines that hold future children's crayon colors. Actually, coloring.pdf is also a manifesto, since the first page is a drawing of stores at the mall, giving gonzo names for these stores, to be appropriated by future synthesizer conquests. Ciat-Lonbarde, Shbobo, Tocante and Ieaskul F. Mobenthey all come from this page.

The documents I added are broken into three categories: runes, spells, and songs. The runes are mostly drawings, and if they have text it is of a marginalia nature. Spells are a combination of drawing with a short, poetic text. Some of my favorites are "welcome, obscure spidermusic," "I photocopy your brain," or "we're parties and we're ready for worlds." All of these are about synthesizers, but require your participation to make them link up.

The final category, songs, details one-page compositions for voice and synthesizer. Most are headed with the caption "song, synth notes in square brackets." These synth notes may be ambiguous, like a picture of a Ford Taurus, or literal, like neumes for pitch movement. Some are qualitative descriptions of types of sounding targets. Perform these quod libet.

In these notebooks, I negotiated a chronic need to create encapsulated pages with a deconstructive, leaky impulse to spill out. Most of the strong encapsulations became spells- combinations of strong image and strong copy like an advertisement. The more leaky discursive pages became runes, with cryptic text and a bleed into technical drawings and idea sketches. The only thing I felt I left out of the documents is the original schematics, but these are retained in actual circuit board layouts. I would prefer to visit my oldest instruments anew on the plane of circuit board, and make functional evaluations in situ, rather than deciding if a schematic is runic or spellcast.

Following are the portable documents, from
coloring book
runes -- spells -- songs

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Jim Foucault and the Dusty Basement

[a short story based on a dream]

It was my first semester as professor of radio and electro-sonic communications at B___ college. My gray trench-coat protected me from the hostile wetness of the winter, but it also cloaked me in the proper air of technology professor. My classes met at normal times- an introductory morning bit of even weekdays, and some seminar duties on the odd days.

I gathered my students in the radio station, and thus my department held an affiliation and embeddedness in the student center that housed it. I assigned various duties such as organizing the record collection, maintaining and expanding the house synthesizer, and calibrating the transmitter power. I had a small carpeted studio, orbiting the station, for teaching the art of the oscilloscope, circuit layout, and how to identify components. But to realize the full potential of youth inventiveness, I knew we would need more than a cozy but small pedagogical room. We needed a dirty basement.

Comparative Computer Musics (MWF)
There are two kinds of computer musics: those that deliver samples just-in-time, and those that deliver a buffer periodically. Embedded devices may allow the former, while desktop musics prefer the latter. A periodic buffer causes a dialectical separation of gesture and sound, control from audio, or score from orchestra in these programs: Max, Supercollider, and Csound. In a comparative study, we will explore the psychological and synthetic divides between haptic and heard, and move beyond to embedded, just-in-time languages.
In idle morning moments, I roamed the upper hallways of the student center, and quickly became familiar with the staff- the cleaning crew, front desk Debbie, the canteen workers, and finally, Jim Foucault. I passed Foucault many times daily and identified his shiny, waxed and shaved head in my peripheral vision; the reflective surface of his cranium was a power spot that I could not directly confront as a stranger. Of course, he was kind and helpful facilitator, especially to new employees who presented him with exciting ideas.

His official title was "Chief of Operations for the Student Center," but we first struck up a conversation about the neighboring hills and woods.

"You know what, how about we talk about wood?"

"I know many sawmills, across the lake in Canada."

"Do you fish on the lake? I notice sometimes your hat."

"Thanks, I also enjoy visiting the bait and tackle store."

"So, I'm the new professor of radio, nice to meet you."

"My name's Jim Foucault, let me know if I can help."

"Well the facilities are well-stocked, cozy, good for teaching, but I'm looking for something we can get dirty, with a sort of makerspace."

"What's a makerspace?"

"Well it really is an empty word, a synonym among many, like medialab, workshop, and my favorite, a micro-cottage."

"A workshop, I can understand, you need to make things. I like a maker, and I've always like people involved in the radio station. I might be able to find a space. There is a basement here, little known to most because it's unfinished and dusty. Otherwise it's nice- it has large windows that look out onto the bay, and you can see the lights of Canada at night."

That caught my attention; "it sounds like a nice room, can we look at it?"

"Well," Foucault backed off a bit, "this is off the books, I can't be responsible if you bring anyone else in the room. It's dirty and could have sharp edges. Also it's not climate controlled like the rest of the building, but I suppose we could go look at it."

At that, he lead me down the spacious helical staircase of the student union to the ground floor. Next, we entered the smaller staircase that lead to the basement canteen, but halfway down, Foucault stopped. There, in the wall, was the faint outline of a small half-door that I had not noticed before. Foucault's massive key-chain sang a flock of metal notes as he picked out the small brass key for this door and unlocked it.

"Of course, these are the darkened windows one sights when out on the bay in a rowboat." An array of windows stretched out in an empty, cold, and dirty basement room. The cool cement air suggested an expanse of hidden rooms as it crept into my nose. Dust motes crept past shards of evening sunlight.

Technology's Periphery (T)
Shine LEDs in my eyes and blast beats in their ears, but what happens between the official showtimes? First we will listen to the "silences" of electronic amplification. Notice their energy consumption as they hiss and buzz, and perhaps illuminate an indicator. We will consider the brosumer-industrial complex of gear involved in maintaining such energies. Finally, we explore Georgina Borne's "performativities:" the liminal zone of audience-as-stage, exacerbated by electronic diffusion technology. 
I worked all that afternoon in the dusty basement, excavating vintage furniture from its recesses- a wood veneer drawer, a fluorescent desk lamp. The lamp had an old, "ignite" button that desires a long holding press to light it. I found a light switch on the brick wall and flicked it. It caused a cluster of halogen sconces in the center of the space to flicker up; evidently some other facilitator had had a similar idea of re-purposing the room, perhaps in the last century.

I developed plans to bring down a large conference table when I remembered my above-ground demands: to prepare lesson materials for the next day's class. I slipped out the door into the small staircase, where the students' late meals wafted up from below. I noted that Foucault had left the lock off the door, a cue that I should procure my own as a substitute. That I had one sitting in the upstairs desk was propitious of the arrangement.

Later on, I met up with my friend Ron. He is slim, slightly stooped, with a wonderful oval head perched atop that spindly but useful body. He wears a small pair of wireframe glasses, and has a dainty mustachio beneath his afghan nostrils. His way is peaceful and acceptance, and his posture reflects this; his arms always form an embracing gesture, bringing his friends close to an open heart. That said, his art is radical like a rocket; there is always a sense of danger, or perhaps the grotesque. He has performed in various altered states including as a vomitorium. I couldn't help but tell him about the new opportunity in the dusty basement makerspace.

"That sounds great, because I would like to build a rocket. I need a fablab with machining capabilities. There's a Chinese website selling cheap CNC lathes, on the Internet, and the old steel dock could become a great launch platform." So Ron was my first guest in the dusty basement, before any students, and he worked quite a bit down there, while it was still serene and a little bit ghostly.

I would meet up with Jim Foucault on the upper levels, between classes, as he rushed about helping with the theater or recital events. We talked about various subjects such as birdsigns, weather on the bay, or types of Canadian hardwoods, but never about the dusty basement arrangement.

Once I did break the ice, in an attempt to formalize the situation for the benefit of his liability security and my pedagogical interests. I said, "Foucault, I'd like to teach a class in the basement, so I'd like to formally take over responsibility for that space with front-desk Debbie." Maybe I, a young professor noted for eccentricities, had overstepped, because Foucault became quiet, whispering a cryptic prayer to himself.

After a bit of prayer, he replied, "I don't think that will be possible, for there are some permanent issues with that room, that will not be solved simply by its cleaning." I may be outspoken, but I am also sensitive to rebuttal, and our eyes communicated a deep sense of closure to the issue. I continued using the room, without knowing where I stood on holding a class there. Of course, Ron was a regular with his rocket, but the official class never happened, and the dusty basement remained a secret source of power and poetic material for my classes in the lofty carpeted halls of the student center.

That's not to say that students never came there, but that they never came in any formal capacity. Ron eventually mobilized some queer friends in the student body to multi-purpose the space. I remember one girl who had quite a haircut- burned in places, hacked in others, long and braided elsewhere, who deployed quite an array of potable concoctions at the structure that resembled a bar. I never could decide if the drinks were alcoholic or not; they certainly did not have the immediate intoxication one finds in a fraternity event, more like an intriguing mystery of affect. Perhaps they were synthehol, or perhaps that was irrelevant, but I began to feel the slow creep of institutional liability where student bodies become involved in an amorphous, unsanctioned, underground zone.

The exuberance of some students needed checking, as they were attracted to the combination of facile machines for making things, plus refreshments and a festive atmosphere. The two elements of stepper motors and electronic house music came together in our aught-like soundtrack of Dubstep. Bordering the bay, these sonic projections sounded more like Ducksnort (Wolf, 2012) to the riparian denizens of the reeds. But yes, Dubstep combines the square waves driven into hot maker-motors with caffeine and cargo pants sprinting rhythms of late-night creativity.

The opportunists I'm remembering came with Ron's "student body" as a bar expander. One of them, named Sophomore, backed his Jetta up to the service entrance and asked to carry in some parts from his trunk. In the mid-day sun, these parts smacked of cocktail bar. Foucault ambled down the service drive. He asked nicely, "what are you guys making?"

"A bar for parties," replied Sophomore, apparently unaware of any "issues" with the student union and such escalation of festivity or the secretive nature of the dusty basement.

"But we have a bar already," Foucault replied, unexpectedly admitting that fact but also politely snubbing Sophomore's plan. Ron kicked his buddy as Foucault looked away, a cue to shut up. Sophomore almost didn't shut up, but he probably realized we would ban him from the dusty basement if he disrespected Foucault any further.

Radio Workstation (TTh)
What are the purpose and needs of a radio station? The massive volume of vinyl records slowly subsides over our time, leaving new open spaces. College radio is a public service, as a community liaison to local artists and activists. In addition, it celebrates live transmission of radio photons, excited by electrons. As such, our duty is to maintain and expand the in-house radio synthesizer, as a sort of virtual soundmark for its antenna's range, like village bells. Students conceive and execute modules both universal and joyfully idiosyncratic.

When Ron was ready to launch his rocket, I remember he marked the circular steel dock with a smaller disc of color as his launch pad. As he loaded and armed the missile, an elegant lance of machined aluminum, I felt that creeping sense of liability again. I asked, "what's the exit strategy?"

Ron looked at me quizzically. "I mean this could be really dangerous when it comes down, and you're surely not gonna achieve orbit!" Ron paused and thought; apparently he had thought it would launch into some intermediary state between orbit and re-entry, and had not worried about landing contingencies.

His quick friend, the girl with an odd haircut, asked "Did you put the proper sized parachute inside?" When Ron replied in the negative, we decided as a group to scrub the launch. In retrospect, this was a great moment of fablab creative culture- the crafting of an artisinal missile, evaluation of its program and contingency, and a social performativity on the part of its "audience." Everyone is the audience in the makerspace, to the sound of its scripted machine cutters, extruders and the data of stepper programs in Dubstep rhythms.

That night the festivities took a step toward towny, with the arrival of Montfort. Up until then, the space was controlled by facilitators such as Ron and me, with the addition of most trusted student bodies. Now it would begin to shift from a dominant creative space to a more sinister, destructive force, as this Canadian local began his nightly boat rides. Montfort crossed the bay in a speed-boat that left a wide and frothy wake in the night-time bay, bringing some mates and a wench to the dock of the dusty basement. He traveled to the sound of proto-punk music crackling on the boats intercom: a far cry from our precise and dynamically amplified Dubstep soundtrack. The comparison made us feel uncomfortably academic.

I began to realize the perennial and secret issues this basement had, like the Canadian nightlights seen through its bay windows. Dust attracted a certain kind of anarchist cottage industry, well appropriated into the liberal institution, off the books and under the table. From there, a rich contingent of student bodies with overlapping philosophies and potions came, marking the golden era of the makerspace. Foucault had endured these developments before, and encouraged them in their productive spirit of dissent and fertile underground actions.

But Montfort, that wild-haired, wide-eyed Canadian boatman had neither a facilitator nor a student body, but an exacerbator of party, and the liberal institution had no mechanism to incorporate the "real thing" into its logic of liability. Authorities never raided us or shut the secret party down; the King's men would likewise never enter Sherwood forest for fear of ghosts. Instead, Foucault gave me the nod, and I knew that power would shift again from the underlings and townies back to the serenity of an empty, dusty basement.

Since I owned the lock, I frequented the place less and kept it closed at night. Ron did not complain, as he was working more on music, and his rocket became permanent furniture to the dusty basement, receding into its corners. I spent more time upstairs, in the cozy and carpeted electro-sonic studio, with studious students. But sometimes, at night, I would slip into the darkened and dusty basement, and look out across the bay at the Canadian lights. Should I start up the motors and LEDs of the machines, or just sit in silence, a ghost of the relationship between art and technology?

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Notes Towards a Mister Grassi Workshop

The essentials of the paper circuit micro-cottage include a needawl- an awl made with a sewing needle for punching the paper circuit. Besides that, the standard tools are a soldering iron, lead free solder, de-soldering braid, and strippers, nippers, and pliers.

Here you can see the back side of a Mister Grassi, with many components threaded and solder-beaded together. Note the temporary disarray of some leads as they wait for other connections- don't be disturbed by the presence of wire, especially if it will serve you in the future.

Next is a picture of the same Mister Grassi, cleaned up a little more, and with some large interstitial traces added. Note that I constructed the central traces with bare wire, and how some outer traces maintain insulation. They tend to be more flopplier there on the outer rim, so you need to protect them from touching each other. In the bottom middle of this picture, you can see I did a special trick with the green wire- you can strip its insualtion a little bit in the middle, and work it apart, to insert a perpendicular connection.

Worry less about following the lines, but rather following the separations; these wires must not touch where they aren't supposed to! Next we start talking about encasure, but first, I need to put the hairy capacitors in. Mister Grassi has twelve, and I usually specify a range between one and ten nanofarads; codes 102, 152, 222, 332, 472, 682 and 103 are the E6 preferred numbers, that give a wide spread from high audio to bass. Any material should be fine, either plastic or ceramic, but long leads helps if you could find the older, green jellybean style. Note that they might not be green anymore, more like brick red (panasonic) or yellow (nichicon) but they will still be polyester film.

Zooming out, the decade range from one nanofarad to ten is theoretically for a diversity of tones that produces a wide range of data noises in the circuit. Actually, you could get just as wide a range of tones by leveraging the precision tolerances of industrial capacitors; by relying on a five or ten percent spread, then many sidebands are generated by the harsh data heterodyne of Mister Grassi's arbitrary logic. 

My son and I are in a noise band, of Mister Grassi and imitative utterance obligati. Each new Mister Grassi adds a unique song-piece to the arsenal, for they are all different as per the discussion on hairy capacitors.

For the case, I use the traditional stereo oblong (see final pictures below). After the circuit board is done and thoroughly tested, move on to installing twelve nodes in the top of the case. Use brass rod or wood screws. Flip the case over and wire each node with a hank of solid copper wire. There are six stars and six crosses on the Grassi board, that connect to these nodes in an arbitrary arrangement for latent finger-muscle memories.

The sides of the case have been slats of wood, paper mache, thin plywood upholstered with fake fur, and simply cardboard. I choose double-wall thick corrugated cardboard and found it quite sturdy for this application. I might cover it with a decorative and protective layer of multi-colored gaff tape. It is mounted with screws and washers.

This case not only protects the circuit board, but it also forms a resonant space, like a hollow thorax to give the speakers a personality and isolate them for maximum diffusion projection. The final touches are almost done.

Here you can see my final grassi box. This form has been with me for a while now. I use it mostly for grassis, but have put other beasts in it. It has two speakers angled to project away or towards the performer, depending on preference. It is slightly arched so the face material can clamp down, with the use of wooden cauls here. I decorated it with a little green felt. I sank the nine volt battery snap into a pool of epoxy, so you can simply attach or detach it upright. I never do an auxiliary output jack; this is almost an acoustic instrument and I prefer to not amplify it otherwise. Since the body of it can be held and shaped acoustically, I find it better to mike it like a real instrument!

The Mister Grassi whom I made in this article uses a slightly improved design, the new Mister Grassi paper circuit. For reference, here is the old one. The difference is in a slight standardization of resistor values, and a replacing of the LM386 amplifier chip with NJM2073. The reason is for the purpose of a completely electrolytic-free circuit. The NJM2073 has two amplifiers, and can work in bridge formation, so it doesn't need the big electrolytic capacitor that the single 386 does. It's an important goal to eliminate electrolytics because they decay and need replacing; they are a major contributor to obsolescence in electronics. A musical instrument can be un-obsoletable, meaning that a musician will always find use for it, be it simple or outdated or ponderous or primitive.

On the soldering bench at Calarts, there sit several Mister Grassis. Nathan Shaw seems to have decorated with sharpie and replaced the cardboard sides with clear polycarbonate! Elizabeth Aubert used the classic Joanne's plastic fur...

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Idiopreneurial Entrephonics

As I sit here with my coffee, I've been meaning to give a concert report on last night. Some good friends have been here at the Wesleyan experimental music department all week, studying the Tudor circuit collections in coincidence with a certain sort of conference that happened this weekend.

Ron Kuivila masterminded the conference, coining its name, that simply implies a history of DIY synthesizers and the motivations behind them. I get in trouble with myself for the word DIY, but pressing on: David Tudor built many aluminum anonymous boxes; Michael Johnson of Pittsburgh and also You Nakai have been painstakingly understanding them. Thanks be to Ron for bringing these good friends here.

Ron Kuivila, You Nakai, Matt Wellins, Peter B, Michael Johnsen, Jonathan Zorn

I've always been inspired by Michael's sound work, his corky attitude, and also smugly satisfying vintage encasures for electronic anonymoids not unlike the Tudors. He's said many sayings, such as "I don't need to buy any electronic components, since I could find anything I need in the trash," and "Tudor's boxes won't really work in anyone else's music, but work well in his own; this is a perfectly good reason for making one's own circuits."

Over South Indian vegetarian pastries, south of the cold town, Michael mentioned a factoid: that cabbage, brussels sprouts, and broccoli all have the same genetic code. This thought had been the center of many of mine own meditations, and so I quickly added: they are like different samples in the same sampler. Or more to the analog community: different sequences in the same sequencer. The apparatus is the same, but the plant can shift phases in a volatile code space- the cabbage way.

Michael inspires Matt Wellins, who after last night's concert is top on my list of electronic musicians. Matt did intern to me once, truth be told, but truth be told that he didn't learn anything from me. I had nothing but soldering iron gossip to offer. Michael gave him much more circuit sage, plus a plethora of pith. Matt went on to build some of his own boxes, very much in the same vein as the Tudor idiosyncratic style, explicitly for his own music.

Peter B, Matt Wellins (in action)

My friend from Baltimore, Caleb Johnston, once offered a rubric for evaluating an experimental or noise performance. The simple trick is that you can make a sound only once. If you repeat it, for example in a looper or a sampler, then it's not memorable. Matt demonstrated mastery of the "one-sound" style last night, with his boxes that simply received knob twiddles to change continuously through a spectrum of previously unknown toot-plasts. The animal was well modeled by his cords.

Michael also modeled some animals, but a more literal picture projected into my acousmatic cortex. I first heard the sound of snow-locked groundhogs in their caves here on Brainerd Avenue, their hisses, chews and brain patterns as resonant dust. Next though, I heard some wind chimes, and finally a large man yelling at his dog. Realizing that Michael was painting my neighbors, I almost heard their little girls running in the yard. I offer another rubric for electronic performance evaluation: the ability to model one's neighbors as heard by an underground animal.

Neither of these artists would use a sampler or sequencer, for deep aesthetic reasons. They choose to pursue these animal modelings by a more natural, neuronal technique of feedback; a multiplicity of nodes each contribute phases and non-linearities to the limping throbbing whole. A rejection of the cabbage way: none of its volatile memory but instead connections make the brain.

I was very sleepy at the event, and at one point I awoke from snoring to hear four men bustling on the performance floor, talking in a semi-hush, while heterodyne whines pumped quietly from the house. You see, the final performance was a re-enactment of David Behrman's "Runthrough" on the original equipment, that requires a little bit of loving to work. Like the theme of the conference, David built his boxes as an esoteric object not for others to understand, but for others to hear. It was nice he shared it, and equally nice that the performance had a sort of kitchen prep as the new stewards- Ron, Michael, Jonathan- chopped onions and warmed up on the oscillators.

David Behrman, Peter B, Ron Shalom