Category Archives: Electronics

Interview with Brandon Aleson

Digit - Brandon AlesonThis is an inter­view with Bran­don Ale­son about his new col­lab­o­ra­tion with Jesse Montini-Vose enti­tled Digit. The piece in an inter­ac­tive instal­la­tion which will be pre­sented Sat­ur­day, Sep­tem­ber 7th, 2013 as part of the NEPO 5k Don’t Run 2013 city wide art party. The tools used include Pro­cess­ing, Arduino and the Kinect.

For more infor­ma­tion about Bran­don visit:

For more infor­ma­tion about the Nepo 5k and the Nepo House visit:

Screen shot 2013-09-03 at 11.27.45 PM

The making of the Vallecula, an interactive mini sound installation

First things first: Thank you to my hus­band Joseph Gray for help­ing me with design­ing the box and with the ini­tial setup and test­ing of the Arduino com­po­nents. Also, a huge thank you to my teacher Ben Kamen who gave me so much great feed­back and helped me every time I hit a wall cre­at­ing the Max patches.

So here it is. One of my lat­est endeav­ors, an inter­ac­tive mini sound instal­la­tion, cre­ated using Max MSP and Arduino.

The Tools

Wiki says it best “Max MSP is a visual pro­gram­ming lan­guage for music and mul­ti­me­dia…” Below are a few screen­shots show­ing seg­ments of patches used in the installation.Max MSP PatchMax MSP Patch


Arduino is a single-board micro­con­troller designed to make the process of using elec­tron­ics in mul­ti­dis­ci­pli­nary projects more accessible…”

Arduino 1

The Val­lec­ula is an instal­la­tion that uti­lizes 20 dif­fer­ent cus­tom Max MSP patches, trig­ger­ing 100 vocal sam­ples.  The piece was pre­sented at the North­ern in Olympia, Wash­ing­ton on June 5th. Sam­ples of what com­posed by the audi­ence using the con­troller can be heard below.

The Vallecula
The Arduino makes it pos­si­ble for the con­troller to com­mu­ni­cate with Max and many other pro­grams. There are a total of 12 dig­i­tal ports, that com­mu­ni­cate with 1’s and 0’s. The Arduino also has 6 ana­log ports, that com­mu­ni­cate using volt­age, 0–5 volts.

I used 8 dig­i­tal ports for my but­tons and switches and 4 ana­log ports for my knobs. When the but­tons are pushed it trig­gers the mes­sage to change from 0 to 1, that 1 can be used to trig­ger what­ever you like in Max MSP. On my con­troller I use it to trig­ger patches that include: gen­er­a­tion of ran­dom tones (sam­ples) and ran­dom rhythms, revers­ing the direc­tion of all sam­ples, con­trol­ling tonal shifts and trig­ger­ing sin­gle sam­ples. As you can see, the mes­sage from the dig­i­tal ports is super sim­ple, but you can use it to trig­ger what­ever you like.

The ana­log ports are a lit­tle more com­plex, but not much. There is a volt­age of 0–5, which shows up as a num­ber between 0 and 1023 in Max, you can write a sim­ple patch to con­vert this to any range you want to. In Max MSP the object box used to con­vert the infor­ma­tion reads like this [scale 0. 1023 100 40]. This sim­ply con­verts the range of 0 to 1023 to 100 to 40. I used this par­tic­u­lar range to con­trol tempo, so the tempo range was 40 bpm to 100 bpm. For the shift in tone the same com­mand looked like [scale 0 1023 2. –1] rais­ing the pitch of the piece up 2 half steps to down 1 half step.

Max MSP Patch


Con­cept­ing and Building

I wanted to cre­ate some­thing that could be con­trolled by any­one, any age, at any level of tech­ni­cal or musi­cal under­stand­ing. I want each per­son to cre­ate a unique com­po­si­tion and to be empow­ered by act­ing as composer.

How much con­trol should I give the user? What would be ran­domly trig­gered by Max, and what would be set?

I used the Eb har­monic major scale for the com­po­si­tion. The idea of hav­ing more vari­ety and com­po­si­tional out­comes was excit­ing, but I didn’t want to do it at the expense of the user expe­ri­ence. It needed to sound good and be easy to use. Each patch needed to take up a dif­fer­ent dynamic and spec­trum of sound. It took awhile to find tim­bres that sounded good together and stood out on their own using only voice to gen­er­ate the samples.

The first patches were trig­gered man­u­ally, so I could bounce around some ideas before I started using the con­troller. I started with record­ing the long chords and build­ing the patch that would trig­ger them. Each of the mid­dle but­tons have an assigned set of long tone chords, each time you trig­ger the but­ton it plays the same chord.

The melodic burst were next. Each time you press a but­ton it ran­domly selects one of 16 sin­gle tone sam­ples. The rhyth­mic pat­tern for trig­ger­ing the sam­ples is also ran­domly gen­er­ated. Ran­dom in this case means that it selects from a 5 dif­fer­ent note lengths, so not ran­dom in a sense that any­thing can hap­pen, but ran­dom in that there is vari­a­tion every time you hear the burst. Each sam­ple is a record­ing of me lay­er­ing my voice on one note, exactly 250 mil­lisec­onds in length. The sam­ples are selected notes from a Eb har­monic major scale spread­ing over 2 and ½ octaves. Ran­dom, but I have do have it it trig­ger­ing the tonic and 3rd and 5th twice as often as the other tones.

Once I had these begin­ning ideas in place I made a few designs for the the box, decid­ing on how many but­tons switches and knobs I would have and what they might even­tu­ally be used for. I pur­chased the com­po­nents at Radio Shack. The one on Queen Anne has a good selec­tion (inside tip from Joe). Once I had all the but­tons and knobs I mea­sured the shaft width of all the com­po­nents. Joe and I worked together to cre­ate the design for the box. Joe had already cre­ated a generic con­troller called the pro­jBox and we cre­ated a design based off of the orig­i­nal model to suit the projects needs. We then had the box laser cut at Metrix Cre­ate Space.

design for Lazer Cutter


wood cut

Then started the process of assem­bling the Arduino, test­ing all the com­po­nents, wiring and sol­der­ing once every­thing was in place.

testing Arduino

When wiring the Arduino you must make sure every com­po­nent is grounded. Here we are test­ing the knobs and switches.

I glued the box together and used screws to secure the Arduino and bread­board to the bot­tom of the box.

Building Box




wiring ArduinoAfter installing the Arduino and bread­board I dry assem­bled the circuits.


wiring Arduino2











Then I sol­dered the com­po­nents and wiring at Metrix Cre­ate Space…

Ivory a Metrix









wiring Arduino3

…and com­pleted the wiring between the breadboard/Arduino and the components.

In my last blog I men­tioned that I had a frus­trat­ing time test­ing the Arduino. I was hav­ing trou­ble find­ing the code to get it to work with Max. I couldn’t find any­thing using the word Arduino in the Max tuto­ri­als, the infor­ma­tion is in the sec­tion talk­ing about ser­ial ports. The Arduino is a ser­ial port device.

At this point I was able to assign the but­tons and knobs to the patches I had already writ­ten. I had long tones, the melodic bursts and a bass line. The base line turn out to be annoy­ing. One of those ideas that you think will be good and when you hear it you know it’s not.

I assigned the these all to but­tons and then started work­ing on cre­at­ing patches for the knobs. Knob 1 was a vol­ume con­trol for the lame bass line and knob 2 con­trolled the tempo of the bass line.

At this point I was in the mid­dle of it and needed some feed back. What did peo­ple want it to be able to do?

I brought this ver­sion into the class for peo­ple to inter­act with and I got some great feed­back. I can’t remem­ber the sug­ges­tions I didn’t take but I do remem­ber the ones I did take. It was sug­gested that I use words or do a poem of some kind, that I have a but­ton to reverse the sam­ples, that I did not have a con­tin­u­ous bass line and that I cre­ate some­thing to mess with the global tempo not just one patch.

In order to raise and lower the pitch I had to trig­ger all the sam­ples in Max using groove instead of play. With groove you can do more with sam­ples, like rais­ing the pitch and revers­ing the sam­ple direc­tion. So I rewrote all the patches for the first time. I rewrote all the patches mul­ti­ple times, part of the learn­ing process. I would go in with a com­pletely crazy look­ing patch and Ben would say, “you know there is an eas­ier way to do that.” So I would take apart my hours of hard work and learn I could have done the same thing in a quar­ter of the time.

I could go on for­ever about the details and intri­ca­cies of the rest of the process, what I tested, what I kept and what I trashed, but then this blog would go on for­ever. I did want to talk about the very begin­ning stages though because I think it is inter­est­ing the way things take on their own life and just how impor­tant good feed back is when you are new to a way of think­ing and cre­at­ing. Some­thing I very much appre­ci­ate about the music tech­nol­ogy com­mu­nity so far is how shar­ing is part of the cul­ture, there is very lit­tle hoard­ing of ideas or fear around some­one steal­ing some tech­nique or tool, it’s all good if some­one uses some­thing you cre­ated and builds on it, as long as they give you credit.

So, here is a sum­mary of the final prod­uct and a brief descrip­tion of the patches that were used.

Vallecula Map

Val­lec­ula Map

* Dig­i­tal trig­gers for cen­ter but­tons, that trig­ger sam­ples of sung slow chords

* A dig­i­tal trig­ger for the right round but­ton that trig­gers the melodic bursts made up of a ran­dom selec­tion of 16 sam­ples and ran­domly selected rhyth­mic pat­terns. The sam­ples are made up of 16 tones that are part of an Eb Har­monic Major scale rang­ing 2+ octaves

* A dig­i­tal trig­ger for the left round but­ton, trig­gers the poem sec­tion. The poem is made up of two verses. Each word in the poem has 3 dif­fer­ent note choices, so although you hear the same words every time it is a dif­fer­ent melody each time the poem is trig­gered. Each verse of the poem uses call and response, we hear the first words panned hard right and a rep­e­ti­tion of the word imme­di­ately at a lower vol­ume panned hard left. The sec­ond verse is panned oppo­site of the first. The first verse uses a ran­dom gen­er­a­tor for the note dura­tion and the sec­ond verse has a con­sis­tent rhythm. At the end of each verse there is a back­wards sam­ple of one of the phrases in the poem. (When reversed the back­wards phrase is the only part you can understand)

* The upper left knob manip­u­lates the pitch cen­ter of the entire piece. By twist­ing the knob you can raise the pitch up a minor third

* The lower left knob con­trols the tempo of both the poem and melodic bursts

* The left on/off switch con­trols direc­tion of all samples

* The right on/off switch shifts the melodic bursts up an octave

* The knobs on the right con­trol the LFO fre­quency and depth caus­ing a tremolo effect for the long chords and ring mod­u­la­tion for the melodic bursts

Duncan with machine


Adventures in Electronics

Over the past year I have been explor­ing and learn­ing more about elec­tron­ics and com­puter based sound and music. Work­ing with vin­tage tech­nolo­gies like the Buchla, learn­ing new pro­grams likes Max MSP and Pro­cess­ing, learn­ing how to work with Arduino and build­ing my own con­trollers. It has been a really excit­ing and inspir­ing jour­ney. I love the out­come of this work, both musi­cally and con­cep­tu­ally. The next few blog entries are going to be about my dis­cov­ery of new (to me) technologies.

My hus­band, Joseph Gray (Joe), is a new media visual artist whose work over the past decade has focused on inter­ac­tive video instal­la­tions. He often works track­ing light, sound and move­ment to cre­ate ever chang­ing and react­ing visual pieces. He has been build­ing his own tools for cre­at­ing live ani­ma­tion since 2001, we met at his sec­ond show doing live ani­ma­tion oh so long ago. He often performs/projects live ani­ma­tion with music, but I hadn’t seen or heard any musi­cians using the same tech­nol­ogy. That is until 18 months ago. I was per­form­ing near Grand Rapids, Michi­gan with Lingo where I met a com­poser named Ken­neth Stew­art who was work­ing with chore­o­g­ra­pher Thomas DeFrantz (Tommy).

Schroed­in­bug Descend­ing a Stair­case from Joseph Gray on Vimeo.

Lingo was shar­ing a bill with Ken­neth and Tommy. We saw their sound check/ tech rehearsal and were totally enam­ored. We all hit it off imme­di­ately, thank god! We were in the mid­dle of nowhere with no trans­porta­tion, I couldn’t imag­ine how bor­ing it would have been with­out Ken­neth and Tommy’s com­pany. Sean and I spent the first evening drink­ing cheap beer and play­ing with Kenneth’s com­po­si­tional tools in their hotel room. The sec­ond night was well…I’ll just say this, if you ever have the plea­sure of singing Karaoke with KT you must request Time Warp, you will not be sorry.

Ken­neth is work­ing on his PHD at Duke Uni­ver­sity study­ing elec­tronic music com­po­si­tion, Tommy is fac­ulty at Duke, that is how they con­nected. Ken­neth was using a Kinect to con­trol the sound for the piece. Push your hand for­ward the sound got louder, chang posi­tion of your arm and tones changed. He was using a pro­gram called Max MSP. It was all so new to me, so I did not yet under­stand what was being done (magic), or how Max and the Kinect were com­mu­ni­cat­ing, but it reminded me very much of what Joe was doing with color and light, but Joe was mostly using cam­eras, motion detec­tors and a pro­gram called Pro­cess­ing. I was very inspired and wanted badly to be able to under­stand and use the tools that Ken­neth and Tommy were using. My mind felt expanded con­cep­tu­ally and I felt that by hear­ing the gen­er­a­tive sound work I was able to under­stand what Joe was doing on a whole dif­fer­ent level and what might be pos­si­ble musically.

Here is a link to a lit­tle arti­cle about Ken­neth and Tommy’s work together.

It was then that the seed was planted, I wanted to learn the pro­grams that made this work pos­si­ble. So, at the begin­ning of the 2012–2013 school year I enrolled in a class enti­tled Hybrid Music at Ever­green State Col­lege. It was a year long class explor­ing both vin­tage and new tech­nolo­gies. I thought I was qual­i­fied for the class because I had done a year of audio engi­neer­ing school already and because I had used Rea­son to cre­ate my own key­boards. I emailed my way in, con­vinc­ing the teacher that I had the expe­ri­ence and that I was qual­i­fied to forgo the first year elec­tronic music courses. After the first class it became painfully obvi­ous that I was way out of my league and really didn’t have the foun­da­tional knowl­edge to under­stand the mate­r­ial. What was I think­ing for­go­ing a year of intro­duc­tory classes. But, I con­vinced myself I could catch up if I just put some extra time in.

There was a whole other weird dynamic going on too, I was the only woman in the course, it was 14 guys and me. I tripped out about it alot the first few months. Why? Why was I the only woman in this class, what did it mean? Music is male dom­i­nated too, but not this extreme. When I was at Cor­nish it was 20% ladies. Is this the way music tech­nol­ogy is across the boards? This was like 5% and I was the 5%. Is it about inter­est, is it about learn­ing styles, is it about the way in which the infor­ma­tion is taught and shared? I don’t know. What I do know is that this class was really hard and I had alot of catch­ing up to do and on top of it I had to prove that girls could do it too and not embar­rass or tar­nish my gen­ders rep­u­ta­tion in anyway.

Modular SynthWe began with the vin­tage stuff, that meant I had to under­stand how elec­tric­ity worked, I still don’t totally get this, but I’m get­ting closer. Then I had to make music using basi­cally mostly just elec­tric­ity, or at least that is my sum­ma­tion for those who don’t know about the Buchla or mod­u­lar Synths.

Buchla 1I don’t cry often, the year before I enrolled in Hybrid music I could count on one hand the amount of times I cried. I could count on one hand the times I’de ever cried about any class.  Not so last year, I was in tears at least once a week out of pure frus­tra­tion over this class. Are men so dif­fer­ent with their learn­ing process. I would be will­ing to bet that not a sin­gle dude shed a sin­gle tear over that class the entire year, even the ones at the same level as me. I was alone in the room with the Buchla try­ing to under­stand how elec­tric­ity works and how to turn it into sound and no mat­ter how much I thought I under­stood or how much I got it con­cep­tu­ally I could not make that thing do what I wanted. I banged my head again the wall for a 100 hours in that class the first quar­ter. It went like this, I tried, I tried, it wouldn’t work, I tried, I tried every­thing, it wouldn’t work, I broke down and cried, I walked out­side for some fresh air, I felt worth­less, felt like there was some­thing wrong with me, I felt I would never progress, I calmed down, I tried again, some­times I left, some­times I had a break though and some­times another, I felt ecsta­tic, I was get­ting it, I could do this, I under­stood, stu­dio time up, repeat the next week, repeat, repeat, etc.

Buchla 2The ques­tion I couldn’t help ask­ing, is it because I am a woman or is it because I didn’t take the intro class or a combo or none of the above? I will never know really. Yeah my emo­tions and pride were get­ting in the way of my under­stand­ing and learn­ing. Did the guys go through the same thing, but with­out the tears or maybe it just lasted like a minute before they could clear their head and move on. Why did I had to have a god damn emo­tional break­down dur­ing every stu­dio session?

5 weeks in, I wanted to stay in the class, but I was really strug­gling, I didn’t want any­one to know how much I was strug­gling, because I wanted to stay in the class. So my major break­through, which may not sound like that big of a deal but it was kind of cathar­tic for me, was get­ting over my pride, stop­ping car­ing if I wasn’t at the same level and real­iz­ing the only way I could really get it was to ask for help, lots and lots of help and to stop car­ing if I didn’t look like I knew what I was doing because I didn’t really. So I let Ben Kamen the teacher know and two of my class­mates, the best and the bright­est, Charles See­holzer and Dun­can Marsh, both in their early 20’s and both had been pro­gram­ing since they mid­dle school. These were the ones I hit it off with and these were the guys who really helped me out. They had a deep under­stand­ing of what was going on with that beast the Buchla and other so many other ana­log synth mod­ules. I stopped car­ing if I looked like a fool or was hold­ing peo­ple back and I asked dumb ques­tions when I had them and asked for help when I needed it and I started to get it. I mean I wasn’t set­ting the curve or any­thing, but I was keep­ing up with the class and I was learn­ing alot.

The sec­ond quar­ter was a wel­come relief, it all evened out, we started work­ing with Max MSP, oh joy! Now this was the rea­son I took the class in the first place. It turns out I’m way bet­ter with mod­ern tech­nol­ogy, which is great because that is what is the least expen­sive, most diverse and most avail­able. After work­ing with the mod­u­lar synths where each time you had to rebuild your patch from scratch, it was so lovely to be able to save a patch and refer back to it, pick up where you left off, I can’t even tell you what a lux­ury it felt like. I was in heaven, I bought Max so I could work as much as a wanted to any­time I wanted to and I stayed up many a night until 4 am totally obsessed with what I was work­ing on. This quar­ter was not a chal­lenge it was a joy, I didn’t cry again until I was try­ing to test the Arduino at the end of the third quar­ter. Embar­rass­ingly my last break­down was at Metrix, in pub­lic, a hacker lab on Capi­tol Hill. Joe said it was the first time he had seen some­one cry at Metix when their pro­gram wasn’t work­ing. But that is it no more cry­ing sto­ries in this blog.

I spent the rest of the year mostly focus­ing on learn­ing Max MSP, how to gen­er­ate com­po­si­tion, build effects, and cre­ate my own sounds and synths. I learned how to use Max with Arduino and build­ing my own con­trollers. All really fun stuff and espe­cially cool because now Able­ton is part­ner­ing with Max, so when I upgrade (any day now), I will be about to use them together more eas­ily and there will be so many more peo­ple using Max with Able­ton that the forums and get­ting ques­tions answered online will get eas­ier and easier.

I’m going to post a few thing I cre­ated and try to explain a bit about the process of cre­at­ing them and share some stuff that I find inspiring…soon.