My My Hey Hey: Using Harmonica as a Vocoder Device

You don’t have to have awesome cutting-edge gear to make interesting sounds. Nor do you have to settle with calling up some preset from a tone bank or soundcard. Sometimes common everyday acoustic instruments can help you approximate a sound/texture that you’re after; and for many musicians, soundmakers and writers, coming up with stuff is half of the fun.

Back when I was making the transition from recording-only, sound collage maker guy to futurist space-folk performer, I was looking for a way to maximize the sounds I could make with the smallest ammount of extra gear to lug along to coffeehouses. In addition to the core elements of guitar, slide and voice, I settled on two items: my two-second Digitech delay/looper and a harmonica.

I tracked down some Hohners and one of those neckholder contraptions at the big music store downtown at Mass Ave and Newbury St, and set about the task of learning to play them while strumming the guitar. I’d messed around with kazoos and wooden flutes and harmonicas before in my recording exploits, but usually just as non-melodic sonic ephemera put through guitar effects units, and never while trying to simultaneously play the guitar.

After I got the hang of it, I started incorporating my noisemaking era’s techniques of vowel-shaping, talking and adding undertones by humming notes through the harp that were different from the notes I was playing on it. The harmonica was transformed into a kind of poorman’s acoustic vocoder/talkbox and it immediately got used in one of my sci-fi folk numbers called ‘Visited A Farm’, opening and closing the retro-future tale like a robot narrator trying to speak.

Continue reading

Experiments in Writing and Recording Music: Using Limits, pt. 1

As noted in the intro to this series, there are a plethora of ways to tackle an impasse in the writing and recording process. I tend to advocate for an experimental solution rather than a ‘standard’ (read: boring and safe) solution. Try something that you or your band haven’t tried; not for the sake of novelty, but for the things you can run into during the discovery process.

The benefit of thinking outside the box is exactly just that; you learn to approach problems and solutions from a different angle. And with the pace of today’s technological advancements, there seem to be an infinite number of options at your fingertips. Getting used to considering all the possibilities on how to finish that song or find that one neat sound that makes the record come to life can help you overcome musical impasses more quickly in the future the more you get used to doing it.

Once you’ve allowed yourself to be open to all the directions that that song or sound search could go in though, there also arises the conundrum of sifting through the myriad of choices you’ve dutifully considered. How do you select the best idea out of a hundred? It can be overwhelming if you’ve really done your homework and truly considered all the options available. So my first rule of action when confronting these kinds of problems has always been the one that almost seems counter-intuitive (at first): use limits.

Continue reading

You might not get back…to the Muse

Some writers and lyricists have a muse; others just go solo or have a co-writer to bounce things off of and consider the process a much more practical and grounded affair than do the muse-poets. Some only write when inspiration strikes or they feel compelled to do so; others adhere to a schedule. For myself, I’ve found that the writing music bit has worked well using just about any method, but the writing of many lyrics and spoken word pieces has actually been a muse-assisted process, and I’ve never really been certain how much of it to attribute to the relationships first described by Robert Graves. But by sticking to the habit of writing lyrics and poems only when inspired, I didn’t burn out; forcing words or turning it into a rote process.

Sure, I would always jot down good ideas or lines when they appeared, and could obviously finish up a piece that was mostly done when not feeling the ‘connection’ to an external source. But for what felt like more serious endeavors, especially multi-hour writing sessions once or twice a year, there did seem to be someone or something that would kind of ‘hold the door open’ across the Arch for my imagination. Then it was all up to my felt-tip pen to madly scribble it all down before the curtain closed.

Many times the inspiration, or fuel, was my earthly muse; and that (devotional?) mindset combined with the poet’s sharp eye in some kind of intense primitive or pre-Bakti ritual. It was pretty amazing; some of those days I cranked out four or five completed song lyrics and three or four spoken pieces in their entirety in one sitting. It really felt like a not-just-me experience, and many of those songs ended up being among my best ever, without having to add or edit a single word. Other days, you’d struggle just to get a decent verse or song title. So I don’t think people can just dismiss the muse-poet theory out of hand, but it’s obviously not how everybody works.

Continue reading

Experiments in Writing and Recording Music; intro

If no one ever experimented or tried new stuff out, we’d be a sorry lot living in caves with bare walls throwing rocks at animals to get ourselves dinner. No bows and arrows, no wheels, no electricity, no computers, no space travel, no web conference calls discussing neutrinos, no s’mores. There’s also a lot of utter crap we wouldn’t have to deal with as well: pollution, cluster bombs, advanced marketing techniques for someone’s useless trinket, GMO’s in your organic brown rice, PR firms and microwavable s’mores.

This applies to music, arts and philosophy just as much as it applies to technology, science and commerce. There will be inspiring innovations, and there will be crap in its wake as well. The larger point is about moving forward through exploration, curiosity and creativity. You’re not going to learn how to ride a bike until you try; and that includes some scraped knees and elbows along the way. But you’re not even going to be able to do that until someone’s curiosity and ingenuity invents the tires, spokes, handlebars and metallic frame first.

Experimentation in the arts isn’t generally viewed as being as crucial to humanity’s fate as advances in medicine, food development and technology are. C’est la vie. But some of the earliest attempts at communication (and all arts are at their core simply a form of communication), from wall paintings, carvings and music to storytelling, constellations and early attempts at written symbols have generated more than their fair share to our general welfare and advancement. And if you’re an aspiring artist, writer or musician, or even an established pro in the creative arts, at some point in your development you’re going to have to try new things or new ways of doing things as part of the learning process.

Continue reading