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Music Thing

You can't buy talent. But you can try. This blog is about music, technology, guitars, synths, keyboard, amps, recording, computers, cubase, logic, sonar, steinberg, roland, korg, fender, gibson, boss.

Updated: 2018-03-28T10:19:25.426+01:00


Music-making advice from musicians that non-musicians might find useful


This blog started 10 years ago in August 2004, and died just five years later.
Back in 2008, I asked you all for your tips about making music. Over a thousand readers replied, and I've finally collected the (fantastic) best responses into one place: Hope you enjoy them, share them and submit more.

Music Thing Modular


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I'm now documenting a few DIY modular synth projects over at including this random sequencer, inspired by vintage and modern random sequencers like the Triadex Muse, Don Buchla's 266 Source of Uncertainty module and Grant Richter's Wiard Noise Ring.
I'm not manufacturing or selling modules, kits, or PCBs, but the design files are all Creative Commons licensed, so you can get PCBs by emailing one file to China, components from a company like Mouser, and laser cut acrylic front panels from anywhere that such things are made. Full how-to details are here: Finding parts to build the random sequencer.

Music Kits #1: DIY guitar effect pedal kits


Over the last couple of years, I’ve spent a few evenings building DIY guitar effects. It's fun to build things that you can use. If you want to get started, one of the hardest things is buying components. Try to buy a 10Ω resistor from Farnell, and you’re faced with a choice of 345 items. So, starting out buying a kit is a good idea. At least you’ll know the parts are right, even if when your soldering isn’t. However, not many people sell kits. Despite the potential markup on a handful of bulk components, the customer service is - presumably - a nightmare. Here are 23 companies who will sell you complete component kits for guitar effects - many more people produce PCBs, or sell finished pedals. Stay tuned for similar lists on synths/noise boxes and tube amplifiers. US 1. Build Your Own Clone Probably the best known company in the business, BYOC have a huge range of kits From the Confidence Booster, a $15 booster kit with no box or switch to the $150 analog delay that they describe as extremely difficult’. They have a very good reputation on the forums for selling reliable, easy to build kits. Their UK Distributor is Vibe-O-Tronic and Moody Sounds (below) sell them in Sweden. Price: $15-$150 2. General Guitar Gadgets The other big player in US kits, GGG seem slightly less ambitious than BYOC, but still offer a good range of familiar sound-alike pedals in complete kits, including switches and pre-drilled boxes. Prices $38 - $80 3. OL Circuits Officially Licensed Circuits have an interesting collection of kits developed on various online communities. They sell the collection of famous guitar amps converted into pedals, plus various interesting valve circuits including the Beavis Tube Cricket amplifier. Prices: $65-$135 4. 4ms pedals Big range of exotic and interesting pedals, stand alone noise boxes and modular synth gear, including the knob-tacular Tremulus Lune. Kits and finished products available. Prices: $90-$140 5. Small Bear Small range of kits (boost, fuzz, tremolo) from the company who specialise in components for DIY pedal builders. Prices: $36-$85 6. PAIA Grandaddies of DIY audio kits. They don’t sell any real stompboxes, but have a few interesting guitar projects like the QuadraFuzz, and an entire modular synth range. Prices: $25 - $200+ 7. Mod Kits Small range of boost and distortion pedals, plus a reverb built around the Belton Brick. Prices: $25-$100 8. Fuzz Box World Sells one simple fuzz kit for $39 9. Get LoFi An interesting range of simple circuits including a fuzz, an amp and (coming soon) a lo-fi delay. They don’t sell enclosures or switches, just the boards and components. Prices: $18-$25 10. Synthrotek A few interesting noisy kits, including a Lo-Fi delay unit and various fuzzes. Prices: $35 for the delay kit. 11. Devi Ever Devi Ever is a Portland-based boutique builder who makes endless varieties of Fuzz. She sometimes sells kits through her Etsy shop, but is currently out of action. 12. Triode Electronics Among their huge range of tube amp gear is one Germanium boost kit for $75. Global 13. MEK Electronic (Germany) A big and varied range of kits including a Klon clone, a delay, a reverb and four (!) varieties of Muff Pi. They’re fairly cheap. The Fuzz Factory clone they sold me worked first time, and had a very neat layout. Prices: €22 - €56 14. Musikding (Germany) Fairly wide range of surprisingly cheap kits from a German supplier with a vast range of DIY effect parts. Prices: €21-€35 15. Moody Sounds (Sweden) Good range of pedals including the the interesting Moody Echo, which comes with a light sensitive option for extreme crazy. They also resell BYOC pedals in Sweden. Prices: €45-€75 16. Pigeon FX (UK) Small range of nice mojo-ish kits: Fuzz Faces and Rangemasters with carbon comp resistors, dark brown PCBs and big ol’ capacitors. Prices: £15 for the boards and components. 17. DIY Stompboxes (Germany) Big range of curiously translated but[...]

Slight return


A few posts on Music Thing should appear over the next week or two, dumps of research and notes that I thought it would be fun to share. Normal service will not, I'm afraid, be resumed...

The end of Music Thing, for now.


(image) Four years ago, I had a job editing laddish lifestyle magazines funded by the National Health Service. It was a great job, great people, and not very time-consuming. So, at work and at home I started writing Music Thing. To my surprise and delight, people started reading it. It was fun and all-consuming. Every day you - the readers - sent me great stories which I had time to research and post.
The things I learned doing Music Thing (the internet stuff more than the guitars shaped like guns) have now helped me get a job where I'm in charge of the online output of The Times newspaper, managing 40+ people and a history going back to 1785. I spend all day on the web, talking and thinking about traffic, developers, links and readers. It's no longer what I want to do at home, so this will be the last Music Thing post.
That's right, I've used this blog to get what I want, now I'm spitting it out like stale gum. Sorry about that.
Thank you to everyone who has ever sent me an idea, particularly if I never got round to using it. Thanks to my fellow gear geek bloggers who have given so much help, friendship and inspiration. Special shouts out to Peters Kirn, Rojas and Taylor, Joel Johnson, Chris Randall, Matrix, Neil S and Michael M. (Image via Keith)

Ten awesome homemade guitars


(image) J chot writes: HEY GUESS WHAT!!! I spent the entire day at work searching the words "made guitar" and "built guitar"!
Here are the most interesting ones I found:
  1. Dude built a guitar from legshield of a vespa scooter
  2. Nicest cigarbox guitar I've ever seen
  3. Hardcore homemade (Africa)
  4. Another African homemade guitar
  5. Croissant-a-caster?
  6. Skate-a-caster?
  7. Dear Jesus, my eyes.
  9. Of lesser note, but still interesting:
  10. Umm....ok.....what?
  11. DOES Anyone know what that is?
Thanks, J chot!

25 Awesome things I've failed to post on Music Thing over the last couple of months


My new favourite Wikipedia page is Unusual types of gramophone records. (Thanks, Steve) Bleep Labs BitBlob is the only thing to buy this Christmas. A patchable synth encased in a pyrex glass jar complete with glowing monsters. $216, limited edition of 30... Another xmas essential is Benge's Twenty Systems album - a lovely booklet/CD package with twenty tracks recorded on twenty different systems, from Moog Modular to NED Synclavier. (More pics here at Hardformat) New synth #1: Dave Smith Mopho, tiny yellow all-analog synth for $399 (from Analog Haven). Like the button marked 'push it', don't like the lack of knobs. The Trons are a robot band from New Zealand (MySpace) (Thanks, Louis) Totally Wired is an interesting-looking obsessive documentary about the Berlin synth store Schneiders Buero. Trailer. (Thanks, Luka) Wonderful podcast #1: Welcome to Mars, the series about sci-fi and the cold war is now a book and CD (and Simon James, who did the music, has an album on the way) MT Reader (and MPC1000 JJOS guru) Nym got ADSR tattooed on his stomach. Where's the party at is a great-looking sampler module kit on a single PCB, complete with dozens of breakout points for circuit bending. New synth #2: Moog are re-releasing their Taurus bass pedals, in a limited edition of 1,000. $1,695, all analog, based on the original circuitry but with midi and proper memory. People have been asking for this in forums for years, but I'm amazed they've actually done it. David Dewaele from Soulwax (another MT reader) explains their extremely fun-sounding live setup to Future Music mag - a mix of Ableton and analog gear. Unfortunately, it's an audio slideshow, so rather than scanning through the article you have to listen for 8 minutes... Most people in Scandinavia now hate Goodiepal, apparently. Goldbaby just released a nice set of drum samples sampled through an EMU SP1200 Yamaha released a bunch of stupid music-themed concept phones (thanks, Matt) Wonderful podcast #2: Us and Them is a genuinely mind-blowing collection of Cold War propaganda music - you can download all seven episodes from the sidebar of the Clerkenwell Kid blog New synth #3: Korg Microkorg XL - very long awaited follow up to the absurdly successful Microkorg (if they'd only sold the actual synths that appear in music videos, they'd still be rich). Gone are the wooden end cheeks and light up buttons, replaced by an interesting-but-ugly look slightly reminiscent of the Micromoog. Steim is now safe. The Dutch Council for Culture has agreed to help fund the Amsterdam home of strange clicky music and gestural interfaces. The blog-inspired letter writing campaign apparently helped. (Previously...) The Indamixx Laptop is a $499 netbook loaded with Linux music apps Such a shame this live audio to sewing machine interface is nothing more than a concept and a mockup. (Thanks, Fab) In the not-awesome-but-understandable camp, the Chimera BC16 is currently off-sale as they catch up with back orders (finally). Shortly before that was announced, they put up the price of the wonderful BC16 to £280.00. Still a good price, but not the astonishing bargain it was at £116, when it was first announced. (Previously) Korg Nano controllers are now also available in black. Not sure if that's an improvement or not. During brain surgery, "Banjo player Eddie Adcock was kept awake to perform while surgeons poked and prodded different areas of his brain." (With picture) (thanks, Samuel) In October, someone claiming to represent the New Yorker got in touch, wanting to buy paid links... Great clip of the Monkees and a big Moog Modular Eric Archer's 'sound cameras', hacked from old 8mm movie cameras, seem certain to become 2009's essential hipster accessory. BONUS: Get extra Music Thing updates at: or in the sidebar at[...]

Banned: The Dettol ad encouraging mums to spray disinfectant into pianos


If you're a MT reader who has watched UK television in the last week, you've probably already been traumatised by a certain disinfectant advertisement: "The advertisement depicted two children seated at a piano. When one of them sneezed, a concerned mother reached for her can of Dettol and sprayed the keys."
The Music Industry Association (the trade body for music gear manufacturers) called in the Advertising Standards Authority: "The company explained that the idea its product might do harm simply hadn’t occurred to it and agreed not to screen the offending commercial again, pending tests to find out whether, in fact, Dettol did actually represent a hazard to piano owners."

Tom Bugs teaches DIY synth building in four hours


Had a great time yesterday at a synth building workshop in East London hosted by Tom Bugs. We built little one board synths with ten knobs, three oscillators, overdrive, line out, onboard speakers, touch points. Flickr set here. What I learned:
1. Soldering now holds no fear. Get a £5 soldering iron with a pointy tip, a cleaning pad, some skinny solder and some wire snippers. It's fine.
2. Well-designed kits are really easy to make. Tom's kit was perfect - well laid out, nice clear circuit board, great instructions (he should be selling the kits 'soon'). The quickest maker did it in about 3 hours, and that was slow and steady... (The Thingamakit is another really well done kit which is available now)
3. Musical accompaniment is important. We were lucky enough to have the Sun Ra Arkestra soundchecking next door.
4. Good lighting is also important. Soldering by candlelight = atmospheric, but not easy.
5. Tom Bugs has only been building electronics for five years - starting out with circuit bending. He's now at the point where he has an assitant to do the boring bits. He's a bit down on veroboard. He uses Eagle to design circuit boards, which are mass-produced in China. His next thing: modules for Frac-rac modular synths.

Review: Arturia Origin. It's big, it's expensive, it's sexy. Why don't I want one?


This is a difficult review to write. The point of Music Thing over the last few years has been to celebrate hardware when all around were defecting to the sensible, practical world of software synths and in-the-box mixing. Celebrating hardware not because it's better, but because it looks cool and is nice to have around. The best hardware is ambitious, bonkers, knob-covered and over engineered; where no switch is left unilluminated and there's always a joystick. Synths should be modular and/or white. Sequencers should be analog and involve copious blinkenlights. We should remember the mega synths of the past - the Yamaha CS80, the ARP 2600, the Roland Jupiter 8, the Moog Modular, and we should remember the crazy experiments of the early digital era - Dave Smith's gnarly Prophet VS. Here, then, is one machine that does all that. The Arturia Origin is a big white synthesizer. It has a hand rest like an old studio console or an MPC60 (unfortunately curved steel, not pleather, but still...) It's made in France, of all places. It's a digital modular synth, containing models of oscillators and filters from Moog, Arp, Roland and Yamaha, plus a VS-style wavetable section. Editing is done on a little colour screen surrounded by knobs and buttons - just like the one on the prototype PPG Realizer - the German machine that anticipated soft synths and virtual analog long before it was possible. So why am I not in love with the Arturia Origin? Why am I writing this, rather than playing with the thing? How come I've already taken the top off to have a look inside and see how it all works? Because the Origin has crossed that line - it's not a hardware synth, it's a computer in a box covered in knobs. Please remember this isn't a real review. This isn't Sound on Sound. I've lived with this box for days, not weeks. I'm not a real musician, I haven't read the manual properly - most of what I say is ill-informed prejudice. The trouble starts when you turn it on, after first plugging it in, using the OEM external power supply that must have cost 99p. (Seriously, a £1900 hardware synth only really makes sense if you're playing live. An external PSU only makes sense if you're desperately trying to cut costs. If Behringer can manage a proper internal universal PSU in £70 mixers, why can't you?) Anyway, when you turn it on, it takes 30+ seconds to boot. Because it's a computer in a box. No, it isn't a literal PC in a box like an Open Labs Neko or a Hartman Neuron, so it will have taken serious R&D investment to design and build. The hardware was designed - in 2005 - by Wave Idea, a French company who make MIDI interfaces. What's frustrating about the Origin is that it's a computer in a box pretending to be an analog synth... and nothing more. The presets are nice enough, although it's a shame that combining 40 years of synth design produces a bunch of trance noises. The switch-covered interface means its rather too easy to turn off the layers of reverb and chorus on all the presets. It's a bit unfair, but does leaves many of the patches sounding weedy and thin. The fun bit is building new patches - delving in to that glorious vintage toolkit. And it's easy enough. You control the whole process through one one those big encoders with a push switch. I found it quick enough to patch together a basic VS - four wavetable oscillators, mixed by the joystick and running through (why not?) parallel CS80 and Jupiter filters. I like the little design features - the Yamaha filters look like knobs on a CS80. The thing is - and here's where I'm so conflicted - I just wanted a mouse and a decent-sized screen (oh, the shame of it). I'd much rather have the beautifully realised screen-based Nord Modular editor - which reproduces the reach-and-grab simplicity of a real modular synth, while allowing for endless comple[...]

Johnny Marr in "The Story of the Guitar"


(object) (embed) Alan Yentob's 3 hour series The Story of The Guitar has been simultaneously fascinating and irritating. Fascinating because there are plenty of great stories and interviews along the way, and irritating because it's the same old Great Men of Rock as ever: music history as written by Q Magazine.

7 things I learned building my first DIY stompbox


(object) (embed) I just finished this very crude and not entirely DIY analog delay pedal. I didn't do any of the difficult circuit-building bits, I just re-housed a MODboard analog delay circuit in a big 1790NS box with some modifications. Here's what I learned along the way:
1. If you don't have the knack, soldering is a nightmare. Once you have the knack, it's really easy. 'The knack' for me was nothing to do with technique - it was just making sure they tip of the soldering iron was clean. I used Multicore Tip Tinner, a little tub of evil-looking grey stuff from Maplin. Grind the hot iron tip into it, and it comes out all shiny and silver and healthy looking. Then keep cleaning the tip with a damp sponge.
2. Drilling big holes in aluminium boxes is easy and fun if you have a step drill. I bought this scary looking Irwin Unibit 4mm-12mm, which made neat, quick, easy holes for everything I wanted - an LED, switch, footswitches, pots, 1/4" sockets. I just used a normal cordless drill.
3. Even with negligible understanding of electronics, it's easy to modify circuits to be more fun. I added the two momentary switches and the on/off LED just by poking wires into the circuit to see what happened.
4. The only difficult bit is planning. I didn't think to leave space for the pots and the jack sockets around the back. There's plenty of room, but I was fired up to drill some holes so I didn't work out where everything would go. It's fine now with a bit of fiddling and clipping spare plastic off the sockets, but probably doubled the time the project took (to about 3 hours, excluding shopping).
5. There's a lot to buy: now I have a soldering iron, a step drill, a glue gun, a multimeter... my next project will be much cheaper.
6. It's not cheap if you buy everything individually from Maplin: There are £12 worth of foot switches in this box.
7. It's very gratifying to slay a few demons (like soldering and drilling big holes in metal) and then end up with a solid, cool-looking thing that works, doesn't rattle, is unique and makes stupid noises. I'd recommend it to anyone.

SH Stompin' Bass: a real wooden stompbox


(image) Tom writes to let me know about the Shadow Electronics SH Stompin' Bass, a miked up bit of wood for those times when tapping your foot isn't loud enough. It has active electronics and needs a 9v battery to work. Tom is sceptical, saying: "Cheap mic and a bit of wood perhaps? total cost...about a tenner", but Shadow reckon "Made out of chosen rosewood which is often used for high class bass guitars the Stompin’Bass works as a fantastic bass or bass drum accompaniment to your acoustic band." Acoustic?

Gijs Gieskes beautiful spinning photoelectronic acid machine


(object) (embed) The first few minutes of this great clip are a bit warble-warble blah-blah, but about 2 minutes in it kicks off into crazy acid noise. Full details of the box are on Gijs' site, including a PHP tool to design and print spinning disks according to the frequencies you've chosen. Love the highres pics of the box, complete with a hand-drawn, hand-etched circuit board...

Sasha Frere-Jones on Timbaland


Great line from Sasha Frere-Jones in last week's New Yorker: "When you hear a rhythm that is being played by an instrument you can’t identify but wish you owned... you are hearing Timbaland"

Music Thing readers buy the coolest things


I've been running eBay affiliate links on Music Thing for a few years now, but only recently got into the eBay developer API enough to see what people actually buy after clicking on MT links. As I was fiddling with the system, it produced a very boring list of items - just random... stuff. It was a bit disappointing, because I'd hoped that Music Thing readers had better taste. THEN, I fixed the code and the real list appeared, together with a huge smile.Here's a fairly random selection of MT purchases from the last few months (the links will die out if you're reading this in the future): 1. Moog Liberation keytar, complete with rainbow strap 2. 360 cannisters of nitrous oxide, for an enthusiastic chef, obviously 3. Maestro 'Rhythm Jester' vintage drum machine 4. Metal guitar pick made from an old Tanzanian coin 5. A dollar bill with Hank Williams' face on it 6. A musique concrete LP recorded by members of Paul Revere and the Raiders 7. A Suzuki Omnichord in brown, of course 8. Steampunk goggles with cracked lenses 9. A sealed tin of tobacco from the early '70s, made in Britain 10. A 150 year-old ring, a Victorian memento mori with a skeleton on it The list goes on, endlessly cool, through 3D lenticular postcards and a vintage Steinberger guitar and a CNC router and afrobeat twelves and Eames furniture and a Tablebeast SK1 and Korean soft porn and 1920s sheet music and Cuban maracas and MegaDrive games and Doepfer modules and Black Sabbath t-shirts and on and on. In fact, in the whole list of 100+ items, the only real embarrassment is one Jamie Cullum CD. You know who you I know this post is a slightly strange invasion of your privacy. If I've linked to something you bought and you'd rather I didn't, just let me know and I'll take it down.BONUS: Get extra Music Thing updates at: or in the sidebar at[...]

Behold the mighty Phantastron tube synth kit


(object) (embed) I'm indebted to Deviant Synth for news of the Phantastmatron tube synth kit. It's a relatively simple $195 build-it-yourself kit to build a complex playable tube oscillator, based on WWII era Navy radar circuitry. The kit illustrated by a series of increasingly awesome videos: Building the circuit board, playing with a ribbon controller, and - seen on the right - processing voice.

The bearded music gear bloggers are talking on Twitter


It's like we're really here... Dynamic picture via, image via Seven Woods Audio.

TV On The Radio's awesome vectorscope video


(object) (embed) Nick writes: "TV on the Radio has a great video posted to their MySpace page. It sounds like a song composed of one synth track and looks to be run through an oscilloscope. I could be wrong about that. I can't tell what the hardware is. Anyhow, beautiful video. While I was watching I thought to myself, "I wonder why I'm not watching this on MusicThing"? I think it's a vectorscope - one commenter suggests from an SSL 9000. Anyone know more? Anyone willing to buy TVOTR a decent video camera?
UPDATE: It looks a lot like a DK MSD200. Thanks, Kåre.

Why should rock stars expect to be rich?


You might enjoy a piece I wrote for Word magazine called Why should rock stars expect to be rich? - arguing that the future record industry simply won't be able to maintain the kind of salaries that pop stars of the last century were used to.

Building a Bleep Labs Thingamakit


Dr Bleep was kind enough to send me a Thingamakit - his build-it-yourself light cell powered noise synth (it's the big brother of the Thingamagoop). The box arrived a couple of months ago and sat in the corner, mocking me. Fear of soldering is a terrible thing, and easily cured by a pair of Velleman crawling micro bugs - £10 from Maplin, 1 hour each to solder together, two happy kids, two parents with soldering fume headaches. So far, the Thingamakit is a joy (being assembled next to an open window and a desk fan). Every component is labelled, the manual is clear and helpful, with useful things like a big colour photo of how the populated board should look. The circuit board is was white until I gunked it with solder flux. Best of all, it worked first time. The kit comes complete with an unfinished 1790NS case and a drilling guide, but perhaps something more interesting will turn up.
Anyway, what should I build next?

The New Yorker on playing live with laptops


(object) (embed) There's a nice piece by Sasha Frere-Jones in this week's New Yorker called Laptops go live: "To protect his Panasonic Toughbook, Gillis [Girl Talk] covers it in Saran Wrap and uses a mouse rather than the track pad. (“My hands just get too sweaty,” he explained to me.)" Above - Battles, who use loopers live, with the laptops just acting as sound sources.

The first ever photograph of a ukulele, being played by...


(image) Just reading the wonderful Alice in Sunderland, which includes this photograph of three English girls taken in the Summer of 1858 playing machetes, the Madeiran predecessors of ukuleles (legend has it that three Madeiran carpenters went to Hawaii in 1879 and started making tiny four stringed guitars). Anyway, the photograph is the first time anyone took a picture of a machete or a ukulele, and the girl on the left? Alice Liddell, Lewis Carroll's inspiration for Alice in Wonderland...

Tenori Off: The unplugged, acoustic Tenori On


(image) Kentaro writes with exciting DIY news from Japan: "TENORI-ON is one of the coolest electric musical device: it is portable, easy to play and good for audio-visual performance. But I have not purchased it yet because it is expensive and a shortage in Japan. That is the reason why I made an unplugged version of TENORI-ON, so-called 'TENORI-OFF'" Exemplary hacking skills, Kentaro.

Waldorf Blofeld Keyboard: £599 gets you 49 keys and sampling


(image) Always nice to see a new hardware keyboard, and the new Waldorf Blofeld Keyboard is nice-ish. Hard to really judge the look from renders (although it's already on sale at Dolphin) - but it's visually reminiscent of the discontinued Alesis Ion. Unfortunately, unlike Alesis, they haven't added any knobs - so this does little more than a £299 desktop Blofeld and a cheapo MIDI controller. And yet... the keyboard also includes 60mb of sample memory. It's far from clear what this means (the Waldorf blurb is: "Just imagine to add a vocal-like noise spectrum to a typical Wavetable pad, spice-up a virtual-analog solo sound with a strong attack sample or just process any other sample with the countless oscillator and filter modulations.") or whether a future Blofeld desktop upgrade can add the sampling option.