Attending ISSTA last month was a fantastic experience. The conference brought together an intimate group of like-minded composers, sound designers, and developers all dedicated to uncovering and exploring new sonic territories. I immensely enjoyed all that ISSTA had on offer, especially the concerts. One of the performers this year was Jenn Kirby who composes and performs electroacoustic works that apply processing through the use of unconventional, gestural, controllers like the Gametrak golf swing tether controller. In Phonetics she uses the Gametrak to control the signal processing of her vocalizations.
The Korg KAOSS PAD KP3+ is a powerful beast. It’s great for realtime processing and sampling, but it’s not the best choice as a loop pedal. For one, the loop record length choices only include 1, 2, 4, 8, and 16 beats. You can adjust that after recording, but not on the way in. One shot samples can be any length, but they need to be triggered manually or via a sequencer. Furthermore, it’s not a pedal. If you want to trigger or record samples with your feet you’ll need a MIDI foot controller to do that. And not just any controller. It will need to be programmable so that you can send specific note values to the KP3+ that trigger each of the sample buttons.
This is the issue I decided to resolve for my continuously evolving live setup. More often than not I use a Rhodes electric piano with the KP3+ alongside a modest family of other gear. Playing two-handed while capturing Rhodes loops without audible gaps is impossible if you have to use a “spare” hand to do it. There are a number of programmable MIDI foot controllers on the market. Unfortunately, most of them are not fully programmable and are designed for changing patches versus triggering MIDI notes. An exception to this is the Behringer FCB1010, however, it’s quite large with twelve switches and two expression pedals. I only need four switches and can’t afford the space the FCB1010 would take up.
People are making all sorts of custom MIDI controllers and there’s tons of microcontrollers that can be used for this purpose. I won’t get into all the options, but a few examples include Arduino (perhaps with a SparkFun MIDI shield), Teensy, Livid Brain V2 or Brain Jr, and Highly Liquid’s MIDI CPU. It just so happened that I had a Highly Liquid MIDI CPU on hand that I was sent to me as a sample years ago. I had used it for a few experiments, but nothing on a permanent scale.
Following instructions on the Highly Liquid website I was easily able to reprogram the MIDI CPU via sysex and start testing it with the KP3+. In minutes I had a prototype working that was triggering the sample buttons properly. With that piece confirmed I ordered four momentary foot switches and a sturdy aluminum enclosure. I measured and drilled all the holes for the four switches, DC power, MIDI in, and MIDI out. I soldered it all together and started using it immediately. I’m very pleased with the results and hope to use the foot switch for years to come. To an extent it is future proof because at anytime I can reprogram it via sysex through the MIDI input. A second reason the MIDI in is useful is because I can still send the connect device MIDI from another source (MIDI clock for example). This works because the MIDI CPU can be configured to mirror the MIDI in to the MIDI out while merging messages that originate from the circuit board. Handy!
This was an inexpensive, easy, and elegant solution to a frustrating problem. Custom MIDI controllers are getting easier and cheaper to build all the time. I’d love to hear about your DIY MIDI controller projects in the comments below. Thanks for reading!
In the spirit of #JAMUARY2017 (thanks to Cuckoo for having the stamina to do it everyday!) I have made a video track using the Squarp Pyramid, Novation Circuit, Moog Sub 37, PreenFM2, Rhodes, Minifooger Delay, and Korg KP3+. I’m not great at making these (hence the shaky video), but they’re fun to do every so often.
The track starts out with a Rhodes loop that I played into the KP3+ with an LFO sweeping a resonant high pass filter. Next I start to bring in Euclidean patterns on each of the four Circuit drum parts. These are generated through individual tracks on the Pyramid. I have it setup with four Euclidean patterns per track bank for a total of sixteen. This way I can mix and match all sixteen patterns on the Pyramid and even swap them or combine them with patterns on the Circuit.
I also use Pyramid to sequence the bass and synth chords on the Circuit. In addition I have a track for the Sub 37 that I mute while soloing, and a track for the PreenFM2. The Sub 37 is in “local off” mode, so whichever track I have selected on Pyramid determines what instrument plays. I find the keybed and flexibility of the Sub 37 perfect as a controller and sound source. Thanks for listening and check out my new album Isosceles for more like it that’s actually mixed and mastered properly. ;-)
Squarp’s Pyramid sequencer just got a new firmware update with the prestigious versioning of 1.0. I’ve had mine now for almost a year and have seen a slew of software updates during that time. The new features in 1.0 include a new LFO MIDI effect. These LFOs can be chained together creating all sorts of possibilities.
Graham O’Brien is an exceptional and inventive drummer, composer, and producer. It has been my privilege to play with him at dozens shows and on at least five separate projects over the last eight years. His latest solo endeavor is a series of five videos titled Drum Controller. Graham had discussed his goals for the project with me, but when I saw/heard the videos I was immediately impressed. I wanted to know more about how he was able to trigger these beautiful and complex electro-acoustic arrangements without touching anything other than his minimal kit of kick, two snares, high hats, and a ride.
Note: Graham will be performing music with his Drum Controller setup and Thomas Nordlund on guitar at Honey in Minneapolis this Sunday, June 5, 2017. Read on for the interrview and a look at his video series. Continue reading