In Search of the Elusive Volume Control

Did you ever find yourself asking the question “How did I get here?”

The first pro-quality drum kit that I had was a Gretsch five piece with birch shells, Ludwig hardware, and Avedis Zildjian cymbals. It was purchased second hand in the mid 1970s. After being overly influenced by Bill Bruford, a set of six Remo Roto-toms was added a few years later. As much as I enjoyed the set there were two problems associated with it. First, in spite of some nice Shure and AKG mics, it was difficult to get a decent sound out of them in my home recording studio. Of course, being that the “studio” was a basement with scant acoustical treatment and a seven foot ceiling, the kit could hardly be blamed. The second and perhaps more confounding problem was the loudness level. In fair consideration to the rest of the family and neighbors, there were limits on when I could play. I simply could not afford any manner of “sound proof” room and unlike the ubiquitous guitars, basses, and keyboards that my friends played, there was no volume control on a drum kit. As I was finishing my degree in electrical engineering at the time, I was hopeful that there might be a technological solution down the road, something more advanced than the “beep-boop” Syndrums of the day.

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This Might Actually Be Useful For Someone

In the midst of the general flotsam and jetsam that is the Refuge, I thought I would post something that some readers might actually find useful.
DIY Guitar Rack, Completed
It’s an inexpensive DIY multi-guitar/bass rack. The one I made holds six guitars/basses (seven in a pinch) and total parts cost was around $20. It’s made out of PVC and pipe insulation. It’s about 36 inches wide, 30 inches high and around 10 deep. It can be scaled easily for fewer or greater instruments. All you need to put it together is a hack saw (and a rat tail file can be useful too, which I’ll explain).
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Opposite Foot Triplet

For those who read my continuing meanderings on getting my right side to behave just like my left, today we’re going to talk about triplets. Of course, these wouldn’t be your everyday, garden variety triplets ‘cause we’re too screwy for that here at The Chimp Refuge. No, this is going to be special.

Ah, the myriad joys and accidental discoveries of symmetrical drumming. For those who read my continuing meanderings on getting my right side to behave just like my left, today we’re going to talk about triplets. Of course, these wouldn’t be your everyday, garden variety triplets ‘cause we’re too screwy for that here at The Chimp Refuge. No, this is going to be special.

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Ultra Jazz Bass

As much as I like my recent vintage Fender American Standard Jazz Bass, I’ve always wanted to get some different tones out of it. The stock pickups are OK but I figured that some after-market units might do the trick. I didn’t want to go through the trouble of adding active pickups, what with the need for batteries and all*, so I picked up a set of DiMarzio Ultra Jazz pickups and set to work modifying the bass.

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Bill Bruford The Autobiography

Insightful, entertaining, and well-written, Bruford gives the reader a unique view into his 40 year career as a drummer to see just how he got to where he is and precisely how this business works (or doesn’t, as the case may be).

What do you expect when you pick up an autobiography of a rock musician? Sex? Drugs? Rock-n-roll exploits with a chainsaw and a gallon of baby oil at the Ramada? Scandalous stories of band-mates and sundry hangers-on? You get virtually none of that in Bill Bruford The Autobiography. It’s much better. Insightful, entertaining, and well-written, Bruford gives the reader a unique view into his 40 year career as a drummer to see just how he got to where he is and precisely how this business works (or doesn’t, as the case may be). You don’t have to be a follower of his music or even a drummer to enjoy this book.
I didn’t know what to expect when I first cracked the cover, but then I’m not much of a fan of rock star or music biz bios, my only prior experience being The Real Frank Zappa Book. No, Bill is not Frank, although I have tremendous respect for both men; Zappa being the iconoclast composer/guitarist armed with biting wit and Bruford the pioneering progressive rock (and eventually jazz) drummer with a hunger for exploration and a thirst for improvisation. While Zappa’s book is filled with usually humorous and sometimes outrageous tales along with his own take on socio-political topics of the day, Bruford’s offering is comparatively understated. Nothing tabloid-shocking here. No confessions of drug-rehab, groupie orgies, or snippy gossip of former band-mates or associated rock stars, although there are some nice asides considering people like Robert Fripp, Adrian Belew, Phil Collins, and Tony Levin, to name a few.

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Cyanohominids gone wild

I don’t know how many of you are familiar with the Blue Man Group, but I saw them perform last night at the Charles Playhouse in Boston and was very impressed. In an uninterrupted show lasting about an hour and forty-five minutes, this mute trio and its supporting cast of a (mostly) unseen band and others behind the scenes combined percussion-heavy experimental rock (I especially liked the banging on PVC piping), gags reminiscent of a psychedelic version of The Three Stooges, various props, and a multimedia blitz (short films, posters, big-beat style house music) to keep about 500 of us captivated the whole time. The Blue Men interact with the audience, selecting victims at random to take part in antics such as putting a white body suit on a guy, hanging him upside-down, covering him with blue paint, and creating a work of “art” by rocking the human pendulum up against a piece of poster board a few times.
I don’t think this or any description does what these characters do justice, but if you live near Boston, New York City, Las Vegas, Chicago, Orlando, Berlin, or Tokyo, you can catch a show any day of the week. In the video below, they demonstrate how to play the “drumbone.”
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How Well Can You Count?

And now for something almost completely different on The Refuge: How well can you count? No, not like in grade school.

And now for something almost completely different on The Refuge: How well can you count? No, not like in grade school. I wrote and recorded a tune the other day. It’s called Timmy Umbwebwe Lights A Candle (yes, I have a thing for odd titles). The initial beat was composed on the drum kit. Not that I planned it this way, but it turns out that the main theme is comprised of three measures of 9/8 followed by a measure of 13/8. This counting is somewhat “plastic” though, and if you prefer you can think of it as alternating measures of 5/8 and 4/8 with an extra measure of 4/8 thrown in at the end. Any way you slice it, it comes out “odd”. Give it a try and see which way of counting it is more natural to you.
Popular Western music for some reason doesn’t really “go” for this kind of thing. Pretty much it’s all 4/4 with the occasional 3/4 ballad. Is it because people have a hard enough time dancing to 4/4 let alone 7/4 or 11/8? Is it because they were never introduced to it? I don’t know. But I do know of a few relatively popular tunes that were not written entirely in 4/4 or 3/4 (or an obvious derivative like 6/8). I’m thinking Pink Floyd, Peter Gabriel, and Sting.
Anybody care to guess the tunes?
(And to hear something that is a little closer to “normal”, try this, which is based on a melody I wrote for my wife while we were kayaking one afternoon)

Will Rock Band and Guitar Hero Foster New Musicians?

Well, at least Stevie Van Zandt and Britain’s Youth Music seem to think so. I’m skeptical.

Well, at least Stevie Van Zandt and Britain’s Youth Music seem to think so. A recent article in The Times refers to research by Youth Music indicating that the games have prompted upwards of 2.5 million children to take up musical instruments.
I’m skeptical. No doubt the games are a lot of fun for people who can’t play a musical instrument and they’re probably preferable to your average shoot-em-up. Further, it’s a decent wager that they do pique interest to the point where the kiddies bug mom and dad to buy them a guitar or a drum kit. But these games, while they mimic real instruments, are nothing like real instruments. It’s more like air guitar with props. This really hit home when I saw a video of the band Rush playing one of their own tunes on one of these games and not scoring particularly well.
I’d wager that once the reality of learning an instrument kicks in, junior’s new guitar will soon find a home in the corner gathering dust while waiting for the eventual indignity of placement next to an old stack of gardening magazines at the spring garage sale. Certainly, some kids will stick it out and eventually reach a level of at least modest proficiency, but how do we know that simply offering them real instruments at an early age wouldn’t be at least as effective? If all these games do is create a new generation of “table beaters” instead of competent drummers, haven’t we taken a step backwards?
There are few things that I love as much as playing musical instruments. I don’t know if other people get (or would get) as much enjoyment but there is something to be said for an artistic outlet that grows with you, challenges you, and allows you to express yourself (even if no one cares to listen) throughout your life. I always encourage people to give it a try no matter what their age.
I’m just not sure that pretending to do it is the best way of introducing it to people.

Doctor Atomic: A Brilliant Luminescence

A few regulars who drop by for grooming sessions and pant-hoots at the Refuge are probably aware that I am a long time J. Robert Oppenheimer fangrrl, or more accurately at my age, a fancrone. So when I discovered that Doctor Atomic was playing at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, I impulsively bought tickets for yesterday’s matinee performance and invited two friends to accompany me.
Oppie%20and%20Tellar.jpg
Gerald Finley as Oppie (left) and Richard Paul Fink as Edward Teller, right.
More below the cut.

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Fun with Resistive Position Sensors

So, how do these sensors work? Well, let’s go back to some basics. The electrical resistance of a material depends on the inherent characteristics of that material (its resistivity) and its physical layout.

As part of my continuing adventures in drumming symmetry, I have been working on a dual electronic hi-hat pedal. The idea is to have a single hi-hat pad respond equally well to either a left or a right foot pedal. It is similar to having both left and right kick drum pedals. For the hi-hat, this effect is sometimes realized through the use of a switch, but that requires some extra motion and it’s not possible to use both pedals at the same time. These pedals (both an FD-7 and an FD-8) are used with a Roland TD20 drum controller. The hi-hat pedal uses a resistive position sensor to indicate the location of the hi-hat pedal, be it fully up, fully down, or somewhere in between, to the TD20.
So, how do these sensors work? Well, let’s go back to some basics. The electrical resistance of a material depends on the inherent characteristics of that material (its resistivity) and its physical layout:
resistance = resistivity * length / cross-sectional area
In other words, if you take a certain amount of stuff and make it very long and skinny in shape, it will have a much higher resistance than if you shape it short and stout. Below is a photo of the sensor used in the Roland FD-7 (the FD-8 sensor is very similar).
HiHat_ResistiveFilm.jpg

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The Music Genome Project

In perusing a few Facebook profiles I noticed something called Pandora. This is an online radio service which lets you look up material by artist or by song and amass channels on that basis, and then, a la Netflix, Amazon, or any number of services featuring similar basic algorithmic “learning” processes, chooses music you might enjoy based on whatever garbage you’ve listened to already.
The difference between Pandora and, say, Netflix is that while Netflix will not brazenly mail you a movie based on its “intuition” (it sticks to suggesting them instead), Pandora will just go ahead and play a song and ask you whether you love it, find it so-so, or loathe it. In this way the program asssembles a sort of random channel to accompany the ones you select that in theory reflects all the songs you would have picked had you known they existed.
Like a lot of applications of its type, you can search through your e-mail address book to find who among your contacts is using Pandora and add them to a friends list. Then you can see what your friends are listening to and what their own “musical learning curves” look like.
How does Pandora decide what music you’re apt to like? Evidently it’s not a matter of simply figuring out which genres your tastes run to, although at the macro level that’s essentially how choices of newly presented music are justified (“This song has elements of funk, bass and trip-hop”). It involves an in-depth analysis of everything contributing to a piece of music — a glimpse into a song’s “genome.”
I tried this and within 20 minutes was jamming on stuff I’d never heard before but immediately really liked. By selecting the Lo-Fidelity Allstars, LCD Soundsystem, and the Stereo MC’s, I was (unbeknownst to me at the time; I thought the site was just a place to find preferred music) inviting Pandora to find me some electronica with a hip-hop element, and that’s exactly what it found.
As you can imagine, these qualities make the application very addictive, but in a good way. I now understand where the name comes from: Once you open the thing up, it’s impossible to slam the lid back down and becoming overwhelmed in a way that feels too damned good is all but inevitable.

Dropsy, Digitalis and Darwin (Erasmus, that is)

So. It’s National Poetry Month. Type that key phrase into the “search” query field on the main page of SB, and you’ll find that April brings forth a veritable poetry slam among Science Bloggers. In this fine tradition, I will don my black trousers, turtleneck, jaunty (but dirty) beret, take a drag from my half-smoked Gauloise ciggie and go Boho here with a selection from the original Botanical Pornographer, Erasmus Darwin, Charles’ grandfather. Today, I have chosen his ode to digitalis. Cue bongo drums.

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Flipping the bird: Guido Daniele’s handimals

Guido Daniele is a superb illustrator. I’ve seen some of his sportswear bodypainting, for example, check out this track suit:
Yes, he is naked.
I had not encountered his hand critters. This really gives a whole new meaning to flipping the bird.
If you can tolerate the barrage of advertisements, Animal Planet features videos of Signor Daniele creating handworks.
I realize that these images have made the blog rounds before, but hey, we geriatrics tend to repeat ourselves. The level of detail is amazing and straddles the boundary between the avant-garde and scientific illustration. Most striking are the eyes. Heck, the peepers of Signor Daniele’s “handimals” are better than the cold dead orbs of performance capture animation (I know; I’m being obsessively critical.)
Zombie conductor from The Polar Express
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DIY Neuro-Motor Experiments: When the Left Hand Knows What the Right is Doing

In previous installments in the DIY NME series, I’ve looked at the application of symmetrical motor patterns using the drum kit. For this entry, the approach is a little different and says something about “handedness” as well. A few months ago I rearranged my semi-symmetrical drum kit into what I call the super symmetrical kit. The original semi-sym kit offered a centered hi-hat and three toms on each side, decreasing in pitch from front-center to rear. The remaining cymbals were arranged in a more-or-less typical configuration for a right-hander (ride to the right, crashes arrayed as desired, but split evenly on left and right sides). Here is photo of the new super-sym kit (either the wide-angle wasn’t quite wide enough or the ceiling wasn’t high enough to get the whole thing):
SuperSymKit.jpg

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Pudendolls in Bronze

Last Saturday (09/29) found me ambling around the DeCordova Sculpture Park in Lincoln MA. When I lived in Cambridge and indulged in hobbyjogging with a few other women, the sculpture park was a frequent pit (bathroom) stop during our long weekend runs on the Lincoln Conservation Trust trail system. In the summer, these runs were often followed by a cooling plunge into Walden Pond. Sorry about the brief nostalgic reverie, but hey, I’m old. It happens.
The DeCordova highlights contemporary sculpture with some pieces on permanent display and others as temporary installations. Sculptures in all media that refer to natural organic forms are the most appealing to me. Quite a few artists are influenced by the morphology of nature and incorporate such into their pieces to good – and sometimes disconcerting – effect. This is true of a number of pieces at the DeCordova.

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Battling Rainbows! John Keats vs. James Thomson Poetry Smackdown

Richard Dawkin’s Unweaving the Rainbow: Science Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder is on my active reading docket. The book has been around for a while (published in 1998), but it’s proving to be a most enjoyable discovery as I continue to read it. So far, I concur with complete reviews’ take on the book. It is a marvelous paean to the majesty and artistry of science. Dawkins’ sense of wonder very much resonates with my own – that feeling of transcendence when I look at light shining through green leaves or the transformations of calculations that are revealed as a colorful abstract collection of molecules on a computational chemist’s monitor screen.
Dawkins derives the title of the book from John Keats’ poem, Lamia. In the opening paragraph of “Barcodes in the Stars” in Unweaving the Rainbow, Dawkins recounts a gathering in 1817 at the studio of artist Benjamin Haydon:

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Psychotropic Walls

Via Technovelgy – Where Science Meets Fiction, here’s an article on a wild display surface upon which small panels move with precision and “ripple,” creating strange, almost biologically protoplasmic motion:
HypoSurface Walls Are Full of Life.
Bill Christensen, the author of the Technovelgy article on HypoSurface notes that this technology is a close approximation of science fiction writer J.G. Ballard’s warped domiciles:

HypoSurface is a pretty good implementation of the plastex walls in J.G. Ballard’s psychotropic houses from his 1960’s Vermillion Sands stories:
It was a beautiful room all right, with opaque plastex walls and white fluo-glass ceiling, but something terrible had happened there. As it responded to me, the ceiling lifting slightly and the walls growing less opaque, reflecting my perspective-seeking eye, I noticed that curious mottled knots were forming, indicating where the room had been strained and healed faultily. Deep hidden rifts began to distort the sphere, ballooning out one of the alcoves like a bubble of overextended gum.

Here’s a clip:


More examples may be found on the HypoSurface web site. This company is based in Cambridge MA. Perhaps its location explained why the surface of Spring Street was so pocked and wavy.

Harry Potter and the Innocent Rite-Aid Cashier

I guess it’s fitting that only now is it dawning on me just how rare it is to have practically no familiarity with Harry Potter. I’ve read none of the books and seen about eight minutes of one of the movies (the first one). All I can tell you is that some religious fundamentalists think the whole production is Satanic, the main Harry kid wears glasses, and there’s a strong element of magic involved.
In other words, I don’t even know enough to be properly called ignorant.

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