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Archive of posts tagged with Music

Black MIDI

November 27, 2013

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Is terrifying.

If only it could be used for good!


The first adventure of Clavilux

October 9, 2011


On September 1st, when we were finally able to sit back, relax and be entertained by wonderful playa friends who stumbled upon our lit-up piano and played Joplin, Rachmaninoff, Grieg, Yann Tiersen, Mozart in return for beer and margaritas, it was all worthwhile. There were some truly brilliant moments of music and light in Illumination Village this year. But getting Clavilux to the desert was a bit of an adventure…

Just to backstep a little, here’s a short video of where I’d got to just before carefully packing the electronics and into a suitcase in late August:

Clavilux does jazz lights from Simon Pearson on Vimeo.

There she is, up and running with a string of 50 LED pixels for each octave. Pressing a note in that octave triggers lights to shoot down the string (the colour depends on the note). It took a lot of effort (as described previously) but she was good to go.

Never let it be said that Burning Man is a holiday, whether you’re lugging along an art project or not. I arrived in San Francisco on the Friday before BM started (I also missed, and then un-missed my flight, but that’s another story), managed to spend one day relaxing and hanging out with friends up in Napa wine tasting, and then went in to full-on prep mode.

Buying the piano had been pre-occupying my thoughts as the budget was pretty tight. Having scoured craigslist, I had imagined an arduous search, trundling our creaky van far and wide around the bay area. Then I discovered the nice people at Piedmont Pianos in Oakland. They stock some incredibly beautiful grands made by Steinway and Kawai which I naturally swooned over. Of course, with a low-three-figure budget we were swept past these and into the basement to see a veritable treasure trove of old pianos, piano-rolls and organs, all in various states of lovedness. Right in the corner there a 99-year-old Netzow upright, made in Milwaukee, who looked and sounded great. I knew she was the one pretty much instantly. Four poofs, a piano, and a dolly later, and we had her in the back of the van.

Checking the tuning

After some inevitably lengthier-than-expected stops at Home Depot, Motel 6 in Reno (where we washed out a fridge freezer in the car park…), Walmart and Whole Foods to stock up and have one last nutritious, freshly made meal, we drove the long, straight 120-mile stretch to Black Rock City as the sun set. We hoped to be in camp by about 9pm but the queues were so long we didn’t drive into the city until about 2am. We made a lot of friends on the way in, though, joined a couple of parties and were treated to remixed Radio 4 by DJ Raindog.

Forecast - hot & dusty

Setting the piano up the next day proved a little tricky. In what turned out to be the only dust storm I shut myself in the truck, took her apart and laid the sensors in the keybed. As the temperature increased, so the electronics became more and more janky to the point where I’d calibrate one octave, put the keys back in, test, move on to the next, go back to check the first and none of the sensors were responding any more. It was a truly frustrating, hot afternoon. I came back the next morning and about 75% of the piano worked, so I think the heat and dust combination was not good for the sensitive PNOScan light sensors (to be fair, it was probably operating out of its tolerance zone at about 39°C).


Wiring everything together took a couple of hours more and I was getting pretty tired – lord knows how the crews of Aurora, Tympani Lambada, Temple of Transition etc coped working for hours on end in the heat. But it worked, the lights illuminated and changed colour when people played, and I breathed a sigh of relief. The music began to flow, and that really made it. A few people gathered now and then for a rendition or two. It was a lovely thing.

Our beautiful 99-year-old Netzow piano

Our little piano bar in the mid-afternoon heat

After enduring a bumpy 400-mile ride in the back of our budget truck, and then daily temperature swings of 30C, our poor old piano was beginning to sound a little honky, but by coincidence we were camped close to a piano tuner Oscillator who had his equipment handy – she was tuned every day we were in Black Rock City.

B'anna plays Clavilux (photo by Matthew Smith)

My beautiful second piano now has a year of sitting in a lock-up in Reno getting gradually more out of tune, ready to hopefully come out to play again some time soon…

I learned loads during this little summer project. How to solder properly, build circuits, quickly run and debug arduino projects, how to hook multiple arduinos together, how to drive long strings of LEDs, how to process MIDI quickly. If I were to start all over again I’d keep things a little simpler (I spent loads of time on the knobs to change the colour of the LEDs, but in the end I decided not to use them in the desert as they got in the way of the music), bear in mind that less assembly required in the desert the better, and also that the conditions there are pretty brutal for home-made electronics. For example the next thing for this project is to try and use pressure sensors instead of light sensors for more reliable sensing. I’d also document more and make more video along the way.

The biggest thing I’ve learned is that making things is bloody loads of fun, and putting smiles on other peoples’ faces is infinitely rewarding. I got chatting with a lovely deaf girl Eli who swung by in the afternoon, and her eyes lit up when I explained how the piano worked. It’s a new way of directly interacting with music that isn’t solely about vibration.

A friend sent an email after we’d returned from the desert which made my day:

Didn’t get to see you guys again but just wanted to say thank you for a magical moment I had care of your lovely piano on the night of the burning man. I was doing one last bomb around the playa on a borrowed bike and swung by to see if you folks were around. Sadly you weren’t but 2 people were sitting at the piano playing – one was a young woman with a lovely voice. I just sat on my bike listening to the wonderfully clinky clanky piano and her soft but beautiful singing with the backdrop of lights and fire and sounds and smells of the playa. Still with me now.

Thanks very much to all the people who gave advice and helped me along the way, Jack Butler from midi9, Ross from Piedmont Pianos in Oakland (I wish I could stop by for a recital!), Jake, Matt and James for doing a lot of heavy lifting and dolly maneuvres (cue the Four Poofs and a Piano jokes), Denise for helping me think about how to display it (although in the end the piano we found was so beautiful she remained pretty bare), Ben and Andy for their noob electronics help and parts.

Lastly a little video of a girl named Rachel who came along and played a little improv for us whilst we were packing down our camp (thanks Tom for this).

Onwards and upwards! If you want a little demo I’m going to set it all back up on the piano at my house :) Bring wine and I will let you have a play :)

Since I Left You samples on Spotify

June 9, 2011


A couple of nights ago I made a playlist containing as many samples as I could find on Spotify that are used on the album Since I Left You by Australian sample-meisters The Avalanches.

It’s a superb album and was the soundtrack to my first year of university nearly ten years ago. I can’t begin to imagine how much time it took them to mix it, and the album launch was delayed by months whilst clearing rights for all the samples. But the album is so incredible and rich I still hear new things in it even now.

Listen to the spotify playlist of samples from the album here.

Making light of music: week two

May 23, 2011


It’s been a reasonably unproductive first week in all honestly. Health got in the way a bit as I’ve had a festering cold which has sapped by energy big time. My noob status means I am missing some vital equipment to get even the basic tests going. I have to wait for some header pins to arrive to connect my midi shield to my arduino properly so I can do an end-to-end test.

In better news I have been working through the tutorials my arduino kit from the lovely chaps at oomlaut came with and finding that building circuits has come back to me very quickly, and programming in c is something I’m not afraid of either, so it’s been going really well. My soldering iron turned up and, after a fairly painstaking hour of making test joints and worrying about the smoke coming out of the iron itself (I’m assuming it was just dust as it stopped after about 5 mins) I managed to solder all the components on to my midi shield.

I can’t test it all works yet but I diligently watched a few soldering tutorials online to refresh my memory, and although it took a few goes to get the technique right, by the end I was soldering super quickly. Most importantly the joints look good.

I also came across a couple of projects along the way which have helped me think a bit more about how to structure the thing. First via Ben, this midi rainbow which is a much simplified version of what I’d like to do but a great starting point and all the circuitry involved is included.

MIDI Rainbow from SuLuLab on Vimeo.

I’ve also been in discussion with Mark Lottor, artist and creator of the Cubatrons (which I was lucky enough to experience in the flesh at Burning Man 2010). He’s pointed me in the direction of some vaguely affordable strings of LEDs.

Former housemate and occasional blog co-conspirator, other Ben has pointed me in the direction of hall effect sensors which may be an inexpensive way to generate note on / note off information (after all, I don’t need velocity).

Help in the lights and diffusers department comes courtesy of Jake who is also tinkering with multi-coloured LED circuits.

So things are happening – perhaps not as quickly as I’d like.

Last but not least there’s the question of name. Daniel Haynes, a green-fingered friend who also performs at Duckie, pointed me in the direction of Thomas Wilfred, an american musician and inventor who was particularly interested in the idea of painting light through an instrument. He originally called it his ‘color organ’, but not comfortable with this term he coined the word ‘Clavilux‘. The picture to the right is the man himself with his Clavilux circa 1928.

“A Wilfred Lumia work is a composition of light, color, and form which changes slowly with time. It exhibits a very wide range of light intensity and a broad spectrum of delicate colors and shapes. These are extremely difficult to record and impossible to “play back” with fidelity, even using a high quality monitor. Thus you cannot experience the full, almost visceral, impact of his work unless you see it in person.”

You can get a sense of what his instrument produced by looking at the animations, and Yale University have a treasure trove of incredible images created using the Clavilux, as well as describing the projectors used to make the light itself, including this fantastic one below. It’s well worth a browse.

A fascinating man indeed, about which more can be found here and here. I do feel however that his work was about creating an instrument from scratch, and it would be overreaching by some way to call what I’m planning a whole new instrument. It’s more about the surprise of the unexpected light emanating from something otherwise seemingly familiar. About actions causing surprising unexpected reactions. So I’m not quite there with a name yet. Suggestions welcome!

A new project: making light of music

May 11, 2011


This May I’ve decided to embark upon a project to create a piano which makes light out of situations. And I might need your help / expertise!

My parents are moving house and my piano which was in North Wales is now sitting in my front room in London, having been bumbled across some cobbles and hauled up the stairs by some very triangular muscled men from Kent. It’s very exciting. But it got me to thinking that I’d like to do more than learn new music, brush up on pieces I haven’t touched for years and give the odd lesson here and there.

I’d like to make a piano which spews light, cleverly, depending on what keys are pressed. It should be fairly seamless and not overt, so the workings need to hide inside, but the basic premise is:

Someone plays the keys -> Some magic processing happens -> The music is interpreted, tastefully, in light form and slips out from above the keybed, over the top of the piano and beyond. Here’s a crap drawing of what it might look like:

Not only would it be a fun project but it would also be a great thing to contribute to Burning Man festival in Nevada, which I’m hoping to attend for the third time either this August or next. We camp with Illumination Village, a group of talented like-minded souls who bring joy to the festival through incredible fire art, beautiful photography and unicorn stampedes, among other things.

Back to the piano. There are some major logistic challenges ahead, and I think the key things are:

How to sense what keys are being pressed?

My early research shows there are a number of ways to do this. Using either pressure sensors or vibration sensors. I’m not sure if the latter would be suitable due to string cross-vibrations but the latter would certainly be cheaper. Then there’s the issue of there being 88 inputs and ideally it’d be great to be able to sense them individually so these would need to be processed in some way.

There are systems such as PNOScan and TFT midi record which can be fitted to a piano – they are an array of sensors and a strip which sits in the keybed. it takes a little time to do but it’s by no means impossible. They also provide a controller box which spews midi out, and my music geek education means I’m on safe ground when it comes to midi data and how to process it, which is a good thing. The downside is cost: the PNOScan system is available in the UK for a whopping £750 which feels a bit steep. Especially when there are other bits to consider…

How will the processing work?

I already have an arduino and have just got an midi shield for it which will allow me to process midi in, however it’s a little board with none of the pots or connectors soldered on. I’m also getting my electronics foo back on early in the process :) The first step will be to plug my midi keyboard into this module, attach it to my arduino and laptop and start doing some basic processing with a simple LED array, which brings me on to…

How will the lights work?

This is the bit I’m least sure about. There are plenty of LED rope lights and multi-colour LED ribbons but I don’t yet know exactly how to control them or whether they are individually controllable. Ideally there would be a way to address the lights individually via a controller to allow some funky processing, eg if someone plays an F# then that one light would come on, then the next in the series, then the next, so the effect would be of the note emanating from the top of the chain through to the bottom. This will be the biggest challenge for me. At the moment I’m thinking of building a string of say 20 of multi-coloured LEDs wrapped in ping pong balls, attached to a controller, and repeating that a number of times (possibly 88, possibly only one per octave)

How much will this thing cost?! And what are the other constraints?

I’m beginning to realise how much art projects on the playa can set people back. It’s going to cost a pretty penny. I think I’m setting my budget at about £2k but that will have to cover:

  • Electronics to provide note on / off information from each key
  • Arduino kit & midi shield
  • Array of multi-colour LEDs
  • LED controllers (DMX?)
  • A second-hand upright piano to be located in San Francisco
  • Hire of van with tail lift and ropes for securing
  • Paint and decoration
  • Tools to make modifications to piano
  • Potential post-festival storage of equipment and/or piano

There’s also the small matter of being able to get the electronics from London to a little north of Gerlach which means the eletronics and piano fittings need to be robust and fit into something no larger than a suitcase (and I’ll probably have some ‘splainin to do at customs), and it will need to be able to withstand getting somewhat dusty. OK, very dusty.

What should it be called?

This project needs a name. That’s one of the first things to sort.

What’s happening this week?

  1. With the midi shield here and my soldering kit on the way I’m going to create a little prototype which goes all the way from receiving midi. This will give me a good idea of:

    • Whether I should be trusted with a soldering iron
    • Whether arduino is good enough to be able to process the midi and do simple and more complex light manipulation
  2. Come up with some names

Are you still reading this?

If so you might have some useful knowledge which I’ll definitely need to get this thing going! Get in touch in the comments or email simon at this domain name.

2010 in words and music

January 3, 2011

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Because it’s tradition, here’s what I was mostly listening to in 2010 (graph thanks to the LastGraph generator)

Was totally obsessed by Ellie Goulding’s debut album this year, as well as Gorillaz Plastic Beach and Underworld.

Over at Meish, for the tenth year running (!) Meg has asked folk to share their year in no more than 24 words for the Mayfly Project 2010. Here’s mine:

Ran a lot, broke hand, finished marathon, cried, burnt at Glastonbury, burnt in Nevada, no redundancy, new job, hard work. Content. Big challenges ahead.

How was your year?

James Blake’s cover of Limit To Your Love

November 28, 2010

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I’m a little bit obsessed with this pared back, raw cover of Feist’s song, and the video is beautifully eerie.

Owen Duff sings It Doesn’t Matter Any More

November 9, 2010

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The terrifically talented Owen Duff duets with himself on a tender cover of a Buddy Holly classic.

Belated thoughts on Glastonbury 2010

July 24, 2010


What a belter. The sun I prayed for shone brightly, solidly, for three days, apologising profusely for its previous absences. We arrived on site on Thursday afternoon without a hitch, set ourselves up and began our exploration. The good weather and the prospect of World Cup delight lifted spirits sky high, despite the sheer number of punters and the inevitable toilet stenches made worse by the blistering heat.

Taking in the whole of Glastonbury Festival 2010

So to the music. As usual so much, so varied, so much missed. But what I did see what pretty damn good, including some surprises. Steel Harmony pummelled out some Beyoncé to an overjoyed late Friday morning Park audience, Phoenix put on a mediocre show on the Other Stage which I had to leave because my neck felt like it was on fire, Mumford & Sons packed out the John Peel stage like never before; Dizzee Rascal let rip and electrified the crowd with Bonkers (and of course, Florence got in on the act and chirped up a bit of You’ve Got The Love).

Gorillaz were the high point of Friday for me. The lukewarm reception from the crowd underlined my inkling that they were a controversial choice for headliners, but I knew their barrage of awesome beats and basslines (especially from the album Plastic Beach) would have me dancing like an eejit. It was an incredibly impressive show.

John HegleySaturday was spent mostly hiding from the sun around Circus, Avalon, and a fair bit of time in Poetry and Words, were Jon Hegley pulled in an impressive crowd and got us all singing about a bungalow in Luton. Scissor Sisters woefully underused Kylie (one song?! come on!) but at least Jake Shears got to show off his sinewy, Iggy-Pop-In-training body. And we did bump into Del Marquis later on at NYC Downlow club. Pet Shop Boys blew my socks off – after years of being my least favourite band on the planet (after U2), they put on a corking show and reminded me how many of their songs have become earworms I shall never dislodge from my cerebellum.

Obviously Stevie Wonder was some pretty funky icing on the cake on Sunday night, introducing little Stevie and even bringing Michael Eavis to do a duet of Happy Birthday to 40-year-old Glastonbury Festival (though let’s just say Eavis should stick to signing the bands up to perform, and milking cows).

100% Beefcock and the TitsburstersAnd the rest? Crystal Castles you can keep, 100% Beefcock and the Titsbursters at DogFacedGeisha sure were memorable (with a name like that, you can’t help but remember), the human jukebox, the accidental tear-inducing viewing of Toy Story 3, and all the random late-night / dawn wanderings around Block 9 and Shangri-la were just amazing. That whole area is so much better than I remember it being in previous years.

All-in-all a brilliant, once-in-a-lifetime festival, and my first Glastonbury without having to resort to the hot spiced cider. If only festivals were all so universally warm, dry and fun!

How likely is rain at Glastonbury Festival?

June 5, 2010

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This year will mark my third visit to Glastonbury Festival, where Bono’s pain will be my pleasure as U2 make way for Gorillaz to headline on Friday night. Hooray! I’m very excited about Glastonbury because, as ever, I’m sure the music, comedy, arts, crafts and booze will be outstanding.

There is, however, the inevitable and slightly upsetting prospect of bucketload after bucketload of teeming, inglorious, skin-wrinkling rain. In 2004 and 2007 I shivered in the drizzle, hot spiced cider in hand, and boogied in the muddy bog. Augustus Gloop: eat your heart out. Last year at Glade was no exception – once again I brought the clouds.

This year I’m praying I won’t be the bad weather omen and we’ll have at least one day of good old-fashioned sunshine and a chance to shed the kagoul for once.

Is that too much to ask?

Well. I’ve done a bit of digging and looked up the historical weather data from nearby Bristol airport around the time of Glastonbury festivals going back to 1997. The results are in the table below:

Year Headliners Friday Saturday Sunday Verdict
High (C) Conds High (C) Conds High (C) Conds
1997 The Prodigy
Massive Attack
15 Rain 15 Rain 17 12 Rubbish!
1998 Blur
Primal Scream
15 Rain 18 Cloudy 18 Cloudy OK
1999 REM
Manic Street Preachers
22 Sunny 24 Sunny 17 Rain Good
2000 Chemical Brothers
David Bowie
Basement Jaxx
18 Cloudy * No data * No data Hazy
2002 Stereophonics
Manu Chau
Fatboy Slim
18 Cloudy 17 Cloudy 19 Cloudy Dull
2003 De La Soul
Flaming Lips
Damien Rice
18 Cloudy 21 Cloudy 26 Sunny Good
2004 James Brown
20 Sunny 16 Rain 20 Cloudy Bit rubbish
2005 The Killers
KT Tunstall
White Stripes
22 Sunny * No data * No data Fog
2007 The Who
Arcade Fire
18 Storms 20 Cloudy 16 Cloudy Rubbish
2008 Massive Attack
Groove Armada
Mark Ronson
19 Rain 21 Sunny 20 Sunny Good
2009 Blur
The Prodigy
Tom Jones
24 Sunny 25 Sunny 22 Rainy Good
2010 Stevie Wonder
Pet Shop Boys
25 Sunny 24 Sunny 25 Sunny Awesome
2011 U2, Coldplay, Beyoncé 15 Rain 17 Rain 25 Sunny Caked-on welly mud

Data kindly provided by Bristol Airport via Weather Underground

So the data seems to suggest that your average day at Glastonbury will be about 19°, cloudy, and you’re very likely to see Basement Jaxx or The Prodigy. And as for rain, here’s the conclusion:

  • Chance of rain on any single day of the festival: 24%
  • Chance of rain on any festival as a whole: 88%

Compare that with my experience so far:

  • Chance of rain on any single day of the festival if Simon is there: 66%
  • Chance of rain on any festival as a whole if Simon is going: 100%

So you see I feel entitled, even owed, a dry festival. Please, let it be this year!

Update (June 21, 2010)

The weather forecasts from Accuweather and are pointing to, astonishingly, a dry, sunny festival. Let it be true, ye Gods!

Update (July 2010)

I’ve added the data from 2010′s amazing, sunny, dry, hot festival.

Update (May 2012)

Added data from 2011.


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