Maker Faire 2007: Chips + Music + Fish

Barney the Theremin Wizard’s home-built Theremin, as an electrical engineer, from a vintage training film, looks on.

DIY music can be as much about attitude as specific gear. We had performances Friday and Saturday night during the Maker Faire, and while the performances covered quite a gamut, a common theme was finding new ways of playing old instruments, or to make new instruments out of existing stuff. That’s something not unique to anyone genre — electronic music included — so perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising at all.

Friday night was a Maker Faire “edition” of the regular Robotspeak Sessions electronic music night. The venue is an incredibly cool little electronic music store on lower Haight. Imagine a dream store filled with both vintage gear and the newest stuff, and you’ve got Robotspeak; it’s unreal. Saturday night was the Maker Faire “Chips + Music + Fish after party”, which I planned with the help of Make Magazine’s Paul Spinrad. It turned out to be just as insane as I thought trying to run an event in the middle of Maker Faire, but we had some terrific artists. (And yes, the fish and chips turned out to be the greasiest thing I’ve ever eaten, but tasty!) The venue was a wonderfully quirky place called Edinburgh Castle, and the best part of the evening for me was that we ran into one of the members of a great band called Echodrone that happened to have a projector. He was playing vintage training films on electricity, which we got to watch run behind Barney’s massive home-built Theremin. (See above.)

I don’t believe music should be about gear (surprising as that may be given the site I run), but I do believe you can tell a lot just by looking at the tools musicians choose. Here’s an overview of the artists we encountered.

Maker Faire 2007: Chips + Music + Fish

Barney’s stuff is truly a celebration of electricity itself.

Barney the Theremin Wizard was a fabulously far-out Theremin player, sculpting ear-splitting soundscapes from home-built Theremins and other gear. (His friend leaned over to me and noted that, even though the sometimes-violent sound worlds sound improvised, each is carefully composed in Barney’s musical mind.) Barney’s rig was probably the closest to the Make ethos, composed almost entirely of home-built gear — a giant Theremin case, plus enough mysterious effects, amps, and speakers to fill my rented Toyota Corolla. Think hard-metal/experimental Theremin rather than classical, but still gorgeous stuff. Check out his MySpace page, with great titles like “When Nerds Collide.”

Maker Faire 2007: Chips + Music + Fish

Pineresin at Edinburgh Castle, armed with as much acoustic soundmaking gear as electronic.

Pineresin is a new trio performing experimental ambient textures, or, as they described it Friday night, music produced by recording analog sounds (drum kit, etc.) and “f***ing it up.” They’ve got a sharp ear for timbre, and though the group just formed, by Saturday they were already really nailing a unique sound. And anything that can bring in bowed percussion always makes me happy. Mmmm … bowed percussion. (I’ve been messing with modeling that in physical-modeling software, having composed for instrumentalists in the past, but that’s another story …)

Drew shares their rig:

drew – i run a 12 channel mackie onyx mixer with efx loops going out to a moog analog delay pedal, a dl-4 delay, and a total sonic annihilation pedal.

i mix jesse’s four live drum mics, carson’s stereo input, my computer input (G4 laptop running ableton live, and NI B4II), and the delay returns. stereo output goes to the house.

carson – takes his own mic feed from the drums, plays prepared dulcimer, russian folk harp, traveler guitar and uses lafayette echoverb, univox tape echo, electro harmonix big muff, G4 laptop running ableton live for resampling and throughput

jesse – marimba, bowed vibraphone, cup gongs, waterphone. kick and tom, snare, cymbal

Yep, their MySpace page says “ambient / experimental / other.” I’m not a big one for labels, but that actually gets you in the ballpark.

And who says “electronic music” can’t involve marimba?

Marimba + electronic music for Pineresin

Marimba + electronics, as Pineresin plays Robotspeak. Photo by Donald Bell (aka Chachi Jones), via Flickr.

Robotspeak Maker Faire Edition

Chachi Jones, running simultaneous live visuals in Quartz Composer with a sprawling electronic music rig, at Robotspeak.

Chachi Jones is a versatile musician with lots of smart beats at his command, and he’s always capable of delivering a real live, Live set. Ableton Live is a favorite tool for DIYers, with good reason, I think. It can sit in the center of a complex setup of DIY hardware and/or software and synths and keep the performance going. Chachi Jones is a real virtuoso with Live, and true to form did a fully Make-friendly set that brought in all sorts of wild sounds (hello, egg whisk on heat sink!) and simultaneous live visuals. He describes his rig:

TR 606, TB 303, portable turntable — all run directly into my mixer with a little reverb on the sends
Macbook running Ableton Live and Quartz composer (patch was a modified version of a patch called Audioskop, I didn’t make the original, but I forget who did)
Presonus Firebox
Old Mac G4 heatsink with contact mic running into a channel in Ableton Live with Resonator effect which was controlled by a series of dummy clips with follow actions
Circuit-bent Texas Instruments Touch & Tell running into a channel in Live with lots of effects and a series of Beat Repeats used as loopers and auto choppers.

Check out Chachi’s full-blown, serious site for more on his work. I’m really loving the latest CD; been playing it a bit.

Robotspeak Maker Faire Edition

Some of Chachi’s toys.

I unfortunately only caught the first few minutes of Dedalus’ set, because I had to run to get my car out of garage before it closed at midnight. (Yeah, I’m not so hot at this whole “car” thing, I’m afraid. Maybe I should start traveling with a bike.) His stuff was absolutely brilliant, though, full of colliding rhythms and fantastic sounds, so I’ll have to go catch more. And he’s got this great, Monome-like wooden button box, as photographed by Chachi, which is inscribed “designed by tehn.” Any enclosure with prominent masking tape is a good thing. I expect we’ll see more stuff like this once the Monome kit comes out; more on that soon.

(tehn, FYI, = Brian Crabtree, = designer of the Monome.)

Box o’ buttons; photo by Chachi Jones at Robotspeak.

Maker Faire 2007: Chips + Music + Fish

Starpause is a terrific tracker/game musician, powered by a Game Park (Linux-OS) mobile game system running LittleGPTracker, also known as “Piggy Tracker.” He really got the crowd going — in contrast to the usually introverted electronic musician or gaming player, he dropped his normally-quiet facade and danced around with his player, finishing his set on the floor. He said he was disappointed no one danced, but after Maker Faire some of us could barely stand — it was still a hit. Check out his official site for details on his net radio label(s) and plenty of downloadable MP3s.

Me. I don’t always hunch like that. But I had a really great time playing. Photo by Chachi Jones.

Okay, I’ll talk my rig, too, since people have been asking. My core, don’t-leave-home-without-it setup has become a MacBook running Ableton Live, a Novation ReMOTE SL keyboard (which is both fun to play as a keyboard and controls Live via Automap), and a Focusrite Saffire audio interface. They’ve just been really solid, so from there I can add other toys. In this case, that involved simultaneously running Resolume for visuals on my Toshiba laptop. But then I can bring in other possibilities, and I’m particularly interested in integrating custom Flash programming with Resolume and Max/MSP stuff with Live. I dialed back on this set, though, just because I felt like having a more quiet evening.

The photo to me is very funny, because I had felt in a couple of recent gigs like I was getting emotionally disconnected from my keyboard, so I put it on my lap, which makes me look like a shy boy hiding in a corner in the photos! I’m still a pianist at heart, so whatever alternative interfaces I may espouse, if I don’t feel that connection as a musician, it doesn’t work for me. But yes, that is me playing the Novation using a MagLite as a drum stick, filming the light using a webcam. Didn’t set out to that, but enjoyed it.

I also got to do some stuff with live camera into Resolume, intentionally abstracting the visuals. Resolume has likewise been truly rock-solid, which means it’s definitely staying in my rig (even if I sometimes swap to Mac and VDMX5). More on that over on Motion soon.

I suppose there wasn’t a “Make” component to my set, per se, but it’s also important to me personally to limit some of the tools at my disposal so I can focus on the performance. It’ll be a completely different set tonight here in New York.

Another photo by Chachi. (Didn’t really have a hand free at this point!)

All in all, it was a fantastic weekend. And I’m glad we did the after-hours element, as well; I hope we’ll get to do more Make-themed events in future like this! We won’t be limited to NYC and Bay Area, either; stay tuned.