Pandemic Synthesiser

This is a set of videos using my Pandemic Synthesiser, coded in Csound. This project is not in any way intended to make light of the current Covid-19 crisis, nor is it intended to be an accurate model of how a virus propagates.

In the current incarnation of the synthesiser, there are 63 “clusters” arranged in 9 columns (left to right in the stereo field) and 7 rows (high to low in terms of pitch). Each cluster contains 50 “individuals”. On the screen, these are represented by dark blue dots.

A piece starts with a random individual becoming infected, represented by a simple tone, and a blue dot turning light blue, showing that the disease has entered the incubation period.

Due to the initial parameters (displayed on the bottom left of the screen, with cyan labels) and pseudo-randomness, the “individual” may infect others in the same cluster, or adjacent clusters, or any cluster in the matrix. Once the synthesiser is set into motion the piece is entirely self-generating.

The dots show the following colours:

Dark Blue: Unaffected
Light Blue: Incubating
Pink Outline: Infectious
White / Swelling: Symptomatic
Green: Recovered and immune
Orange: Recovered but still vulnerable to reinfection
Red: Dead

Further information on the progress of the “disease” can be found on the bottom right of the screen, with yellow labels.

This is definitely best listened to with a decent pair of headphones and on a big screen – there are a lot of frequencies generated.

Technical stuff: The Csound code takes parameters as a simple text file. It then generates 48k audio, and outputs .svg files for each video frame (as a compromise between quality and rendering time this is currently 10fps). I use an ffmpeg script to stitch everything together into a 1080p video. At first, with 5×5 clusters and no video, this ran in realtime on my computer, but it’s become much too complex now.

Outlandish Vibrations Podcast

Welcome to the Outlandish Vibrations podcast. In each episode I will talk about a sound. The sound might be mechanical, natural, electric, acoustic, musical, accidental… or something else. I’m recording the sounds as I go along, so the podcast is somewhat diaristic in nature.

You can listen to the episodes here at josephsanger.com, or:

Here is a link to the RSS feed which hopefully will work, and

Here is a link to my SoundCloud page, where the podcast lives.

Electric Clavichord

I’ve been making an electric clavichord over the last few months and have recently finished it, although I’m sure I’ll be tweaking it for a while. Above is a short video documenting the process and demonstrating the instrument.

The simple key levers.

Traditional clavichords have bent key levers so that the equidistant keys can strike the strings at the correct (non-equidistant) points. This was too much for my limited carpentry skills and also my limited toolbox, so I opted for straight levers, angled so that the “playing” ends of the keys converge on points which are approximately equidistant.

The keys are all made from standard pre-cut wood from a DIY shop (I think it’s 8x8mm). The sharps and the little blocks to hold the tangent nails are all made from the same stuff. It turned out that a lot of the wood wasn’t quite square (which explains why it was half price), so some of the sharps poke up at slightly odd angles.

This skewed keyboard is actually not too hard to play, although it would be difficult to scale up much beyond two octaves.

The clavichord has twelve strings and is double-fretted (the C is triple-fretted), which means it has two tangents for each string – the tangent is the metal part on the key which strikes and frets the string. Traditional fretted clavichords were fretted so that rarely played discordant intervals, like minor seconds, were played on the same string. What’s slightly unusual about my design is that each string is fretted on the octave, meaning that any harmonic interval is possible except the octave.

I had a few reasons for designing the keyboard this way. Firstly, as a pianist I play a lot of octaves and I wanted to encourage myself to use more tone colour in chords. Secondly, each string’s tangents are easily worked out by doubling the string length, which means that the skewed keyboard can be arranged more efficiently without keys which are very close together at the top and very far apart at the bottom, as they would be if fretted to play semitones on the same string. Thirdly, and most importantly, the keyboard is easy to retune to different scales and temperaments, which is much harder on a traditional fretted clavichord. Tuning the D string (for example) tunes both of the D’s.

In the DIY shop across the street from me I found a bag of these strange blade-headed nails, I think they are something to do with carpets. They make perfect tangents. I filed the bladed edges down a bit to prolong the life of the strings.

Tangents.

The twelve strings are all the same gauge. My early experiments indicated that an electric guitar D string sounded pretty good over two octaves when tuned at the length I wanted. I went to my local music shop and found a bargain box of half-price strings, including exactly twelve .28’s (quite a heavy D), so I bought the lot.

Aluminium tailpiece

A while ago, a friend gave me some cheap mandolin tuners, which come in two rows of four. I managed to find the same type and bought another set, then used a hacksaw to saw one of the rows in half so I could have six each side.

Headstock

During the process of making the clavichord I was talking to a friend about the pickup I was using (a very old humbucker), and the fact that the strings were very variable in volume. He managed to sort me out with a custom-made extra long humbucker pickup, which just sounds fantastic. If you’re in East Anglia and have a problem with a stringed instrument, I can’t recommend him highly enough! Olley Neale guitar setup and repair.

Custom Humbucker

All in all I’m extremely happy with this instrument. I’m going to play it in for a while and see how long the strings last, then think about performing live.

Joe Blood – Stomp Stomp Stomp

Here’s a one month album using banjo, diddley bow, percussion and looper.

The Bathophone

Here’s an instrument I made in the mid 1990s while at Dartington. It’s a set of tuned cylindrical chimes suspended by fishing wire over a wooden tank of water. A foot pedal lowers the chimes into the water, which flattens the pitch.

It was largely successful, but It was extremely heavy, cumbersome, rusty, leaky and unpredictable.

Organ Monkeys – Purple Patch

This is the third One Month Album from Organ Monkeys, and my first foray into electronic music – a sort of proto-Daftberk.

Looper

The Looper

This Looper is made from Csound Code on a 1st-generation Raspberry Pi, a DIY Joystick kit, an old Edirol soundcard, and plywood.

Dialogues with Dave

In August I visited double bass player and old friend Dave Pullin. It was the first time we’d seen each other for nearly a decade, and the first time we’d played together for even longer than that. We talked, drank coffee and improvised music. Here are some recordings from that day.