A little while back, Steven bought a new Martin acoustic guitar. It didn’t quite have the magic he was hoping for, so he didn’t play it much. He thought about selling it. Instead, he brought it to a guy who did some setup work and found the magic was there all along — it just needed someone to coax it out. Now it’s one of his favourite guitars.
He wrote a song for the magic-coaxer. A bit of a musical letter. Because that’s the kind of guy Steve is.
The main acoustic guitar he’s playing here is my funky old Gibson LG-2, but his Martin does come in at the moment everything suddenly thickens up a whole lot, lending a bit of support. So when he sings, “Thank you for the bridge mic; it’s what you’re hearing at this moment,” it’s sort of a lie, but you are hearing that guitar. You’re just hearing it in the background, recorded with an LDC instead of its built-in mic.
His is a similar model to my 000-15. It might even be the same model, minus the satin finish…I’m not sure offhand. I haven’t had much of a chance to get to know it yet. It seems to record well. It’s got a nice natural compression to it, and a brightness that plays well off of the somewhat darker sound of the Gibson.
I had some fun with the arrangement. After adding bass and the clean electric guitar, I thought I’d tack on some brushed drums and that would be the end of it. Seemed like a song that didn’t want to be layered too much.
The drums didn’t feel quite right. I tried recording some shaker. That didn’t feel right either. So I got rid of the percussion and started thinking in a different direction.
Two years ago I bought a circuit-bent Casio SK-1 off of eBay. Here’s a picture Joey Acott took of me showing Dave Dubois some of the whacky things it can do.
(Good God, that man takes good pictures.)
My memory is pretty reliable when it comes to music-related things. In this case it had a bit of a hiccup. See, one of the first instruments I ever had as a kid was a Casio SK-10 — a more streamlined version of the SK-1. I had a blast forcing that thing to make music out of sampled armpit farts and television sounds before I had any real musical skill.
My grown-up head got it twisted, and I assumed what I had back then was an SK-1. They’ve grown in popularity in recent years, and after hearing some of the interesting sounds people were making with circuit-bent examples I thought I’d pick one up for myself. I was wise (in the accidental way) to do this when I did, because now the bent ones don’t seem to be around as much as they used to.
When the keyboard showed up without a vibraphone sound, looking a little different than I remembered, I realized the mistake I’d made. Turns out the SK-1 can do a lot more than an SK-10, though. With the bends, I’ve been able to make a cough sound like insane industrial percussion, and I’ve created strange loops and electronic sounds that would be impossible to reproduce with any other equipment. Even without engaging a single bend, I’ve made a ukulele pitch pipe sound like a strange synthesizer and a harmonica sound like an evil underwater flute choir.
The flute patch all on its own is pretty special, and some subtle processing with effects can lead to some very cool mutations of the base sound.
So that’s turned into a not-so-secret weapon. It’s on the last Tire Swing Co. EP, it’s on the new Papa Ghostface album, and it’ll be on the O-L West album and my next solo album when both of those are done.
A while after getting to be good friends with the SK-1, I read about the Yamaha VSS-30. The SK-1 and the VSS-30 have a lot in common. They were both made around the same time (1985 for the Casio, 1987 for the Yamaha). Both have 32 keys, 4-note polyphony, a built-in microphone for sampling, and a sampling depth of 8 bits. Both are much more than the toys most of us thought they were when we were kids.
They’re full of great, unique, lo-fi character. Run either one into a high end mic preamp (my choice has been the Great River MP-2NV, because that’s still my mic pre Swiss Army knife), add a little reverb or delay, and you’d be surprised how good they can sound.
Now, I love the SK-1. It isn’t going anywhere. But the VSS-30 can do things the SK-1 can’t even get within sniffing distance of.
It took me a while to snag one for myself. No one on eBay wanted to take a money order. So a little over a year ago I buckled down and made a PayPal account, just so I could get an archaic little sampling keyboard that’s almost as old as I am.
Here’s one example of what the VSS-30 can do, or what it can be made to do. The grimy low synth-pad-sounding thing that comes in during the instrumental section of this Tire Swing Co. song and sticks around until the end is a sampled Wurlitzer electric piano. I held the VSS-30 in front of one of the Wurlitzer’s built-in speakers with one hand and played an open fifth with the other hand. Then I mangled it with some of the keyboard’s built-in effects.
The only thing touching what’s coming out of the VSS-30 is some reverb. The weird chord that kind of hangs there right before the last instrumental section starts and comes back again at the very end is what happens when you take a sample of a power chord and play it as a major chord so there are three different open fifths grinding up against one another at the same time, making a giant chord you’d need another few hands to create the old-fashioned way.
The amount of sound-warping you can do with this thing is insane. It even allows you to “oversample”, so you can layer as many samples on top of the first one as you want. I’ve made myself sound like a disembodied choir of monks this way.
The VSS-30 gave the song something that felt like it fit and skewed everything a little at the same time. Then I added some piano and some shoegazey electric guitar, and it felt like it was done.
I’ve been playing around lately with running distortion after a reverb pedal instead of the other way around. It creates this smearing effect, almost like the guitar is exploding in slow-motion. It isn’t always going to be the right sound, and I don’t want to overuse it, but when it works it’s a whole lot of fun.
All the electric guitar parts, clean and distorted, are coming from a Squier J Mascis Jazzmaster. I’m done getting any more guitars for the foreseeable future — I’ve got enough already, and not much room left for additions to the family — and I never, ever thought I would have any use for a Squier of all things. But this one is a really nice guitar. It would be a nice guitar with any name on the headstock. At this price point it’s a ridiculous value. And I financed it at Long & McQuade, with payments so low it doesn’t hurt that much.
Having said that, I’ll never so much as buy a set of strings at that place again after the experience I had with them this time. Long story. Not worth telling. Nutshell version: run away. If you can, buy anything you need off the internet instead.
Anyway, back to the guitar — I was surprised how comfortably it played right out of the box. I haven’t brought it to anyone for a setup yet because I haven’t felt a need to. The intonation is solid, and it feels good in the hand. The neck has a nice smoothness to it. Some people don’t like the gold pickguard, but I kind of like the way it looks. A lot of people rip out the stock pickups and replace them with something more authentic and Jazzmaster-ish, but I like the way these stock pups are voiced. They’ve got a nice P90 thing going on.
New guitars aside, the moral of the story is this: if you’re into recording and sonic sorcery, you could do a lot worse than picking up a used SK-1 or VSS-30 if you find one for a good price. Yeah, they’re lo-fi little creatures, and the sampling time you’ve got to work with isn’t a lot (I think the VSS-30 at least gives you a little bit more than the SK-1’s 1.4 seconds). But you can do some very cool things with them, circuit-bent or stock, whether you want to use them in pursuit of sounds that are beautiful, or chaotic, or both.
I vote for both. Because what’s one without a little bit of the other?
One more thing. During that first instrumental section, at about the halfway point there’s this odd sound that’s a little like someone singing semi-off-key in the background for two seconds. I couldn’t figure out what it was until Steven reminded me it was a harmonica.
Sometimes when we’re recording his lead vocals I’ll do goofy things during instrumental passages just for a laugh. This time I picked up a harmonica and tried to bend a note, and it came out sounding like the harmonica was sick.
No way would I ever keep something like that in someone else’s song (in one of my own songs, maybe). When I played a rough unfinished mix for Steven two or three weeks ago, after we finished laughing at the ridiculousness of the groaning harmonica I mentioned I was going to chop it out when I did a real mix. He asked me to leave it in.
This is one of the reasons it’s such great fun recording with him.