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.

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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.

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The bookends are still to come

Welcome. Thanks for dropping in. The first batch of tracks uploaded to the new site here span from a live 1991 gig onward through the 2000’s; a good intro to my somewhat chameleon-like output and various bands/projects over 25 years of songwriting, experimentation and music-making.

There’s lots of guitar here, of course: acoustic, electric, slide, prepared guitar, lap steel, fx freak outs and more. And songs of all sizes, be it a full electric band or a solo folkie nugget. But there’s also the sound-making adventures I’ve always been fond of taking that get featured as well. The lap steel/fx duet with shortwave radio that is “Hurtling Thru the Information Age”. The contagious¬†(literally) electric prose of “Language”. The Pink Floyd cover arranged for autoharp, tea kettle, trash pail, cassette case and seashore. A guitar conjuring up CB radio voices and phone conversation in “Word Travels Fast”. Vignettes from the Urban Candid Mic-ing series. The tabla, gong and organ sounds coaxed out of an old Richenbacher slide guitar on “Steel, Delay and Buddhist Monks” and more. It was always that thirst for sounds and how they could be presented that drove my musical engine. That some of them landed on their feet was just a bonus. So hopefully while you’re here today you can scroll thru a playlist and find something that appeals to your listening needs, whether in the songs and pieces or in the lab experiments.

The bookends are still to come. The most recent material (2007-present) and the earliest stuff (pre-1991) still are not represented onsite yet, for very different reasons. The newest stuff is mostly unfinished; instrumental guitar pieces which still need arrangements, a few songs with drums and vocals, and some promising electric bazouki sessions done recently at PureLand Sound Studios out west. The oldest material, on the other hand, is all on 20+ year old cassettes that have braved the weather extremes of my various moves through the years; some need a simple digital transfer and cleanup, while others have succumbed to breakage, tape hiss or de-magnetization. But the ‘fun’ stuff done on the 4T will be remixed where possible. That process was ensured when local audiophile NZ donated a double-speed 4T cassette machine which will allow a revisiting of those heady days of the Tascam PortaStudio; the first generation of home multitrack recorders, the true forbear of the affordable and portable DIY multitrack recording systems everyone enjoys today.