iBoD – Playing by Ear with Lisa Means: Hearing the Ethers

Lisa bought a new guitar! A John Suhr limited edition commissioned electric guitar signed by the maker in a faux alligator hardshell case. The top of the guitar is quilted maple and looks like rippled water. Lisa bought the guitar because it’s voice eclipsed the sound she was carrying around in her mind. She said she had this jazzy sound in mind with rhythm (swingy, danceable) and a clean, clear tone when plucked (like George Benson). The Suhr guitar has a lovely tone with crisp, clean edges and bell-like shape. The sound the Suhr guitar planted in Lisa’s earbrain is more “New Agey”

A few weeks back, I sent Lisa a thumbdrive with recordings of our sessions since June. She reports that the recordings were not helpful to her as she couldn’t pick out her voice from the whole soundscape. This is good to know- the recordings give me a lot of information, but not so for Lisa. I know she listens to music by turning it up very loud in her home, so I asked if she did the same with the session recordings. She explained that she has sound reference files in her brain that pick up on familiar patterns associated with the song she is listening to. Without these references, Lisa is less able to make sonic sense of what she is hearing.

Our September 28 2019 session focused on the new guitar and what it brings to our pallette. And we played in a different relationship today. Instead of Lisa’s guitar through the Neutron, we played on separate channels. Lisa wanted to hear her new guitar clearly since she is just learning it, so I played the Ripplemaker through the Neutron. In this configuration, Lisa leads the way, while I bring interesting underpinnings into the mix.

Listening back to the recording, I think this is another way for us to play together. Our collaboration becomes more like intermingled solos, so the impact of our playing together is indirect rather than direct. Our voices are tandem rather than merged, and we can respond to each other. One question is how to create useful audio reference patterns for Lisa? She said that she couldn’t hear the recordings in the thumb drive because they were too removed from what we are doing currently. So it seems possible that if she listens to a recording from the most recent session, she could create new reference files. We will try this out.

The October 5 session is when things came together. Lisa brought another guitar – a 17″ wide arch-top Kay guitar which she describes as the kind of guitar you would find in the Sears catalogue in the 1950s. She played that and the Suhr while I created morphing streams of sound sequenced by Ripplemaker and modulated by Neutron through Abejusynth Station modules. The quality of the sounds of the sequence can be altered within the Ripplemaker, then in the Neutron. Then the audio signal from the Neutron goes through an Ableton audio track, which can then be sent through and altered by the Abejusynth Station AAC/EG modules. (For more info, go here: https://wp.me/p5yJTY-vL). Any of these Ableton tracks can go through delay send and a reverb send. So there is a whole lotta modulating going on!!



After our October 12 session, I am very excited about our playing as intermingled soloists at 919 Noise Showcase on October 30. We ran ourselves through my Roland Eurorack mixer (Thanks, Jim!) so I could balance the sound. Then I recorded into 2 H6n tracks and in the room. We decided to start with a wave of sound and then whittle it down. I was not sure this was working, but listening to the recording, I decided we need to just listen close and have faith that it IS working.

Here is a mix of the 2 H6n tracks AND the room recording. This seems like an interesting way to capture sound recordings in the SunRa Room. That said, this mix has too much synth and not enough guitar, and we will fix that so the blend is better in the future.

Playing by Ear

Come and hear us play the ethers at 919 Noise this Wednesday 10/30 at 8:30!


Ever since I saw Caterina Barbieri at the Pinhook during Moogfest 2018, my deepest desire has been to dive into the sonic sketches/sculptures/landscapes of modular synthesis. Caterina’s album title, Patterns of Conciousness, says it all. This sounding out of the electrical impulse that is at the heart of sonic events has become my spiritual practice, my way of hearing and understanding the world, my container of wonder!

The world of modular synthesis is dense with creative pathways and quite expensive, so I decided to start with what I have – Ableton Live, my soundscape companion for 8 years. For a while, I worked on creating Audio Animation Clip/Envelope Generator modules. This can be done by animating effects within muted audio clips so only the effects are heard, and then routing audio through the clips from a source track. The source audio is then modulated by the effects in the AAC/EG track. I used this for The Space ReSounds of Water to capture and modulate the live sound of the bells. Here is an example:

Then I bought my first hardware synth – a Behringer Neutron. This synth had great reviews, it has knobs and patchbay, and can be sequenced by Ableton. Ableton is beta-testing a pack that allows the DAW to play Control Voltages. I am not sure how this works, but it involves having an interface that is DC-coupled. And this will be for Ableton 10 Suite users, which I am not yet. All of this to say, I have not been successful at getting the Neutron conversing with Ableton via midi. I have had success with the Neutron by running audio signals through the input with the VCA bias knob all the way open. This worked out well as you know if you heard our All Data Lost performance!

Before the Behringer, there was Ripplemaker iOS semi-modular synth, which I have played with for a few years now. We are old friends, and I can sit down to a fresh template on Ripplemaker and get going immediately with cool sonic relationships. This app will teach you about synths in a deep way. In the beginning, I referred to the manual constantly, but now it is easy to just jump in and play for long periods of time. Here is a recent soundscape performed on the Ripplemaker to accompany Jody Cassell for the last PROMPTS at The Carrack.

Now the fun begins! After some experimentation, I have cobbled together my Frankensynth. I begin with sequencing in the Ripplemaker, which provides the audio source for Neutron. So we have an iOS synth and a hardware synth playing together. Then the audio from the Neutron goes through a track in Ableton. Seven additional tracks in Ableton are each running AAC/EG effects and receiving audio from the track carrying the Neutron. So the Ripplemaker/Neutron generated audio will be heard through whichever AAC/EG track’s volume fader is up. So these three synths (Ripplemaker, Neutron and Abeju Synth Station) are sitting inside each other like nested dolls. Here is a sample of how this can sound: (recorded in the SunRa Room on a rainy day!)

I am very excited to play this setup with Lisa Means on guitar at the 919 Noise Showcase on October 30th at The Nightlight Bar in Chapel Hill!!

String of Yeasts

After reading and studying the data (so far) from The Sourdough Project, a bit of it jumped out as a possible sound pallete. The growth profiles of the five most prevalent yeasts and aabs (acetic acid bacteria) measured as increasing Optical Density over a 48 hour period. Measurements were taken in 12 hour increments and recorded from 0.1 to 1.2 levels of density.

I was drawn to this data because the graphs reminded me of waveforms.

I am not at liberty to reveal the details of the data, so suffice to say that these are 5 strains of yeast. We will call them pink, blue, orange, green and neon. The pinpoints mark the 12 hour samplings of the prevalence of the strain. So at 12 hours pink grew to around .25 OD, while neon grew to .6 OD. How to represent this in sound is the next question!

My old friend, the piano keyboard, provides a familiar sonic framework. A two octave chromatic scale will represent the sound of OD growth by stretching the OD measurement scale over the two octaves. Like this:

Each OD amount covers 2 notes. D and D# represent the .1 amount, E and F are .2 and so on. This allows some wriggle room when the 12 hour sample seems to be between two numbers as is seen with pink. The growth range for pink will run from D to F and encompass 4 notes. In the case of neon, the growth range runs from D to C and encompasses 11 notes. The differences in the growth rates will be heard in the number of and duration of the steps taken within each twelve hour time frame. So far, so good!

The time frame will run in beats and measures. Since it is 48 hours of growth, one hour can equal one measure. The step patterns will run up to the highest note indicated by the OD data at that particular 12 hour marker. That makes each sampling unit 12 measures in length – seems perfect. Even better, at 4/4 time, each 12 measure sampling unit is 48 beats long! Synchronous!

Lets lay out the first 12 hours of pink and neon. Since all the yeast densities begin from .1, all the patterns will begin with D in the 3rd octave (D3). pink grows from D through D#, E, and lands on F. For this growth pattern there are 4 notes and 48 beats, so each note will be 12 beats long. The long notes and fewer steps up communicate that pink did not grow much in the first 12 hours. Neon grows from D, D#, E, F – C. For this growth pattern there are eleven notes and 48 beats. Each note is 4.36 beats in length. So the first ten notes are four beats long, and the eleventh is eight beats. The longer note at the end places emphasis on the final growth number for that 12 hour period. Faster steps further up the scale sonify neon‘s more abundant 12 hour growth period.

Looking at the graph, it is easy to hear that the growth patterns of pink and neon invert at the 12-24 hour sampling unit. Pink leaps from .25 to .7, while neon short stretches from .6 to .75. Again, note duration and number of steps will sonify these contrasts in the data.

While a sense of growth is captured by the movement up the scale, there is not yet a sense of increasing density. To get at this, I decided to sustain the top note of each 12 hour sampling unit. As example, pink’s F and neon’s C would continue softly to the end of the 48 measures. This would follow for the last note of each 12 hour cycle and will create the sense of sonic density.

Enough talk, lets have a listen!

neon 48 hour growth pattern

pink 48 hour growth pattern

These are the 48 ms versions of the patterns. So 48 4/4 measures at 120 BPM really stretches out these relationships making it harder to hear the movement of the data. Ableton Live has a function that allows me to collapse the sequence from 48 measures to 24 measures and still maintain the rhythmic integrity of the phrase. WoW! Then the phrase can collapse to 12 measures. All of these phrases will likely be a part of the Sourdough Song, but I am still deciding which version (24ms or 12ms) conveys the data more clearly. One of the researchers on the project said the longer growth articulations conveyed the anticipation the bakers feel as they wait for their starters to grow.

Here is the 12 ms version of both strains together. See if you can hear the changes described above. Listen closely for each voice – you will hear pink holding longer tones, while neon changes tone more quickly. It helps to look at the graph while you listen.

This will likely be one a motif within The Song of Sour Dough. (What do you think of separating sourdough in the title?)