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Sonic Art + performance

For the last 3 months i have been developing a performance instrument based around some of the concepts sonic art. Below you can find a blog that shows a week by week account of how we i reached the final product.

Early Development

Coming from a producer-dj background I thought it would be quite fitting to utilise this knowledge and the relevant equipment to my advantage. Thus I built the set around Ableton and the Pioneer DJM 900NXS [mk1].


The 4-channel DJ mixer as well as being a sound processor also acts as an audio interface, sending and returning 4 independent channels of audio via USB to a laptop and back again.


Having become familiar with the DJ mixer in its more traditional setting of DJing I was particularly interested in exploring other non-conventional ways of using it and finding new sonic possibilities within its routing.

The next question to explore was what would my source material be. Research into current practitioners of the area brought artists such as Reed Ghazala, one of the founding fathers of circuit bending/hacking to my attention. Reed started out by opening up old kids toys and adding new components and strings of wire to them to short them out and create new weird and wacky sounds.


Another area that peaked my attention was the printed circuit board. Inspired by the creative possibilities of modular synthesis and the potential for both ‘clean and simple’ textures as well and more ‘complex and dirty’ ones I thought this could be an interesting area of exploration. There are lots of companies such as modular addict and soundtronics that sell kits and single components for you to create your own sounds.


I wanted to marry these two areas together to create something that was half synth, half hardware hack thus giving the best of both worlds. Using ether my fingers or the built in pins I can short out the circuit creating new odd textures and sounds.


The next port of call was to work out how I should process the PCB I had. Having recently been really getting into lots of granular manipulation this was the obvious answer. I thus set about researching new reaktor patches that would give me lots of scope and control over the source material.


Plugging things in


Putting together the instrument:

This week my main goal was to plug everything in, test its stability and begin exploring its sonic capabilities.

One of the first problems I came across was the signal from the PCB only coming down the left channel of the cable. This was because the output of the PCB was mono and as I was using a TRS Jack to stereo RCA cable.

Now although for this project the final output was going to be mono anyway, some of the granular effects I wanted to use didn’t trigger/work ‘correctly’ unless they had a stereo signal coming in. Therefore I needed to get hold of a mono TR jack to stereo RCA.

Apart from this everything else seemed fairly stable, the only other slight issue was a bit of latency between my midi instruments and the digital audio workstation.

Adding a feedback loop

This week I decided to explore what would happen when you created a feedback loop in the mixer. I decided to hook up the booth output to the phono input of channel 4. This resulted in some particularly dirty distorted bass frequencies and very clean square waves when EQ and filtering was added. This combined with some other effect layers allowed me to create some more complex layers.

What was particularly tough to manage here was the amplitude. There’s a very fine line between the channel feeding back and clipping/distorting. The more you make the channel feedback the more interesting weird and wacky tones you can get. However every time Increase the feedback amount, I equally need to turn down the master to match a similar output of the previous sonic material I was working with. This then causes me issues when I want to mix the content together and start to feedback other audio content coming in on other channels of the mixer.

Pitch shifters and midi control

As we were experimenting within the group some peers and my lecturer pointed out that the majority of the sonic content was within the same frequency band. This frequency band tended to be the same as a lot of my peers content and clash. I thus decided to add 3 pitch shifters into the signal chain before it returned to the mixer and before it got to the granular effects. This allowed me to transpose the fundamentals of the original sonic material down to about [enter freq] and up above human hearing. (20Khz). I then mapped the pitch control to a knob on an app called lemur my phone via contacted to my phone via OSC.

Other effects pre fader and pre-granular

This week I added some more effects in-line with the pitch shifters. Each has its own unique purpose, from creating new harmonic content with distortion to spectral filters, which take it away.
One of the themes in our group performance session was ‘pulse’ which made me identify that I didn’t have enough LFO based effects in my arsenal. I thus decided to add an ableton native ‘frequency shifter’ device which allows me to ring-modulate the audio and modulate this further with other LFO’s. I also decided to add an auto pan device at the end of the chain, this allowed me to smoothly modulate the over all volume thus giving me the ‘pulse’ I was looking for.
With the added number of effects came the added number of parameters I had to control so I also added another pieces of hardware; my akai midi-mix. As you can see I’ve mapped all of the knobs and faders to various different parameters to give me complete control. One of the initial issues I had here was that the midi channel it was transmitting on was the same as the DJ mixer so I had to work out how to change that.

Granular upgrade

This week I decided to get rid of the white grains patch in Reaktor as I wasn’t able to manipulate the sound within the patch as I wanted. This is because I could only seem to get some of the controls to be midi-mapable and without delving deep into the workings of reaktor I wasn’t able to fix it. That being said it makes way for something far more powerful in my opinion. The granulator mk2 by monolake allows me to capture a pre-defined length of audio using a ‘grabber tool’ and re-pitch them on a keyboard. As a granular synth it also has lots of other interesting functions inherent to a granular synth such as grain size, file position, frequency modulation and LFO’s to control many of these parameters. As this is a synth it also allows me to amplitude shape the sounds I am creating. This therefore allowed me much more variation of sound ‘types’ from ultra short transients and long building textures. This in turn allows me to counterpoint my and fellow performers sonic output more effectively.

Responding to performance stimuli

This week stimulated by our group session I felt like I wasn’t getting enough transients and low so I decided to add a ‘drum rack’ to my set up. This meant I could add any short ‘one shot’ samples to be triggered independently and to trigger pre programed loops or patterns. The first sample I added was a ‘techno style’ kick which had a lot of midrange punch and huge amount of sub. When combined with filters and layers of reverb this became a really useful tool to create low end rumbles or tiny short ‘pops’.
Another tool I added encouraged by our lecturer was a single clean sine wave at a high frequency accessible by the switch of a button. What I found fun about this was the contrast it gave me between large full frequency (sometimes distorted) textures and a single clean piercing tone.

Approaches to performing

Developing on the concepts from last week I wanted to be able to make my textures more distorted and develop the concept of pulse. With that in mind I decided to create some more specific drum sequences and then map the master tempo of the project to a fader thus allowing me to create granular like textures due to the sample being triggered again straight after its been played and not having time to play out completely. As you slow the tempo down you also create this pulse like feel which can really cut through the rest of the composition.

With capabilities comes the possibility or more control. With this in mind I wanted to be able to trigger the granular synth (via osc on my phone) and the kick sample simultaneously. Thus I added another midi device namely the akai LPD 8 to trigger the samples.

Curbing and adapting the instrument

This week my focus was to adapt and refine the instrument down the instrument for our group performance. With this in mind one of the areas I wasn’t satisfied that I was proficient enough in was reverb. Therefore I added a reverb plugin near the end of each chain of effects on each of the 4 channels that make up my instrument. These are all mapped to the 4 controls, which are always accessible to me on the LPD8.

Another key area I identified I couldn’t quite achieve as I wanted to was dirty textures. Thus I decided to add some waveshaper plugins after the reverbs to achieve these. These are all also mapped to the LPD8 and all always accessible.

The last area this week was to familiarise my self with the quickest way to reach certain sounds and such as fast transient clicks and simple tones and pitches

Diffusion systems

At home i took the concept of spatial performance one step further by experimentally diffusing different layers to different speakers. This started to really create an immersive audio experience and  push the source-cause relationship further. 


Final Instrument Demo

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