New Equipment, New Ideas

Brian Dee in downtown Edmonton, ABI don't want Black Box Band to be driven by technology, but it's bound to be to some degree. I am, after all, a one man band and I depend heavily on equipment. For example, a long while back, I saw the Yamaha VL70-m sound module on the Patchman Music website. I play sax so I really want that same realism in my songs! Well, Matt has reprogrammed this thing so that it produces awesome horns as well as other breath-oriented sounds like harmonicas and flutes. That opened the door to songs that had a great sax solo or a background of three horns. Sometimes, that's what really MAKES the song. And then there's software. When I heard the online demo for RealGuitar, I said to myself, WOW, now I can do Beatle songs because this guitar sound is so amazing! It opened up a whole new world of possibilities! What's New?

Now, as I look ahead, I am always aware of technology. It's telling me what I could try to do to make my act that much more entertaining. Assuming that I have the music taken care of, I want to look at two areas, both under the general category of visuals. I know that I am going for the 50s-60s era look and I don't think that video presentations were common back then, however, this is today and I can't ignore that there are more demands on bands to look good, as well as sound good. So, I have decided to include lighting in my performance. One kind of lighting which I find fascinating is EL wire. The EL stands for electroluminescent. It looks like neon, behaves like wire. You run AC current thru it and it glows. It has to have a driver to produce the current but these are often run with a few small batteries or a plug-in power supply. The two types of drivers that appeal to me are the beat-to-the-music driver and the sequencer. The first is self-explanatory. The sequencer will light up sections of wire in all kinds of sequences. The first costs $15 and the second, maybe $75. The sequencer I have settled on is a 10 channel, that means, I will have ten separate pieces of EL wire and the controller will turn them on in certain sequences and continue to repeat the sequence forever. I have chosen a simple 1-10 with each wire BlackBoxBand sketchstaying on for the duration of that cycle. I have a logo of my band name which shows black, box and band on separate lines of a music staff. There would also be a treble clef there and at the bottom would be the website name. If you add them up, that makes 10 things, three words, five lines, the treble clef and the site name. They would come on one at a time until everything is lit, then go off and start over. How cool is that? I will string this EL wire through grooves in the flat surface of my keyboard case. I also really like the pulsing thing though so I have decided to make a switch using relays that would flip back and forth between the two controllers, depending if there is a song going or not. It's complicated because one controller needs all 10 wires connected together and one wants the wire in 10 disconnected separate strings. To make matters more interesting, I prefer a MIDI track on my computer take care of this, meaning I need some kind of controller which understands MIDI and can control an electric switch. I can buy a Midi Solutions Relay for $125 or I could build something myself.

Now, I am thinking that I should make images of the instuments on each of the speakers with EL wire. A guitar for the guitar speakers, a base guitar, drums, saxophone and so on, indicating what sound is coming out of that speaker. Some of them will be pretty easy to design, others, maybe not. Don't forget, I am dealing with a darkened area usually, so the way I attach the wire to the speaker grills shouldn't be visible. I have some rough ideas, especially for the guitar, maybe with white strings, orange guitar body and another colour for the string twister things at the end of the neck. I was considering using real twister things so that the ends of the strings could stick out in the air, just like real strings do on a guitar. The EL wire only needs to be connected on one end. The other end just needs to be connected up to itself, if you know what I mean. I haven't figured out yet how to get the string in the shape of a guitar body without blocking the sound coming out of the speakers. Each instrument image will have it's own sound activated controller tucked into the speaker area somewhere so that the image will pulse according to the sound coming out of each individual speaker.

Secondly, I really like the idea of a real-time music video to go along with my performance. One of the things I see on YouTube is a camera shot of a performer's keyboard. I thought, that would be cool! My audience should have a closer look at what I'm doing. I am now thinking of two cameras, one attached to my mic stand and the other on a rotating arm on a lighting truss, which is kind of a reinforced lightweight beam. I am looking at various ways I could mount a rotating motor on a track which would control the position of the camera. The camera would actually be on the end of a boom which is attached to the rotating motor. Trust me, the design in my head is very neat and I think it will be awesome. It will be controlled by a midi track in my recording software with some kind of command language so that I can turn the rotating motor or move the assembly to the left or the right on this truss. It will have to use motion control technology because I need to have a feedback loop so that the computer knows where the camera is. If you are a techie that knows exactly what I am talking about, I would enormously appreciate hearing from you to help me with how this feedback loop would work. My background is programming but the robotics part is new to me. All this would be run by a fourth computer (that is now ready to go) running software connected to a Numark NuVJ video mixer. It would be able to take the live camera feeds along with other video clips and mix them with cool effects or do unbelievable merging of the various video streams, creating a live video projected onto a big screen behind me. What people would see is my keyboard from various angles, or from just above my mic, towards which I would be looking most of the time. How's that for up close and personal? There are a ton of clips that come with the NuVJ equipment. If you are interested in this, do a search on YouTube for NuVJ and have a look. 

The video equipment, not counting the computer, would have to include cameras, a projector, a screen and a video mixer. The mixer comes with software which would require a fairly competent computer which would have to have two monitors because of the nature of the video mixing job that it has to do. I have been doing a lot of reading on USB cameras. Apparently, having multiple USB cameras is not going to work. Now, I am looking at Firewire connections and I have recently found some really good stuff at ptgrey.com. The camera I like is called the Flea2. This camera can do 60 fps at 640x480. That's really decent and will look awesome! Unfortunately, I just found out the price (> $1000). I would also have to buy the lenses so that adds even more to my cost per camera. Anyway, I look forward to the day when I will have some kind of video presentation on stage and then, all the expense and effort will have been worth it. The NuVJ can also pay attention to the beat of the music and it sounds like I will be able to just occasionally reach over and flip it to another camera, do a merge here and there and more or less end up with a fun video product on the screen behind me. I remember reading that it can record a performance, so that would make things pretty slick for me. The projector will have to be very bright. I am looking at the Vivitek D940VX which I should be able to get for maybe $1300 and has 4300 lumens! My biggest challenge is always to give everything that 60s flavour. 

Sometimes, I see a piece of equipment that I have happened across doing searches and browsing the internet. One such marvel is the Akai APC40. It's a controller that works in total harmony with it's software side, which is a special version of Ableton Live. From what I can tell, this produces that repetitive beat-type of music where you start a drum, add a base and so on until you have a huge amount of music being generated. A lot of DJs use this kind of equipment. It's all based on sound clips and they call these up and repeat them, modify them and merge them with other sounds. My description might not be 100%. I'm just giving you my own impression. Anyway, I heard a Christmas song in a movie the other day that I think was produced with this technique. To that, they added a real person singing and they might have thrown in some other real instruments playing along. This sounded really great and seriously piqued my interest so I started imagining how I could use this technique myself, but, probably not for 60s music. So, Black Box Band might have to branch out eventually and have another sound. A different kind of act? Maybe. Seems like it meets my primary goal, which is to have fun. I am already thinking about having a blues and/or an R&B act. This is a lot of bang for 400 bucks. Another similar item that I really like is the Korg padKontrol. It is also a very powerful controller with a grid of 16 buttons and has an X-Y pad that can vary sounds in really cool ways. This item can be a lot cheaper and used, it could be worth buying just to fool around with.

Do you have something to add? Are you using the APC40 or the padKontrol? What software are you using? Drop me a line, if you have a minute. I look forward to hearing from you. Contact Me

My most important goal? I'm going to have fun with all this stuff. I am incredibly excited to think of how awesome this will all sound. When I see the delight on people's faces, my goal will have been accomplished. What's New?

All the best to you
Brian Dee
Black Box Band
My Blog


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