Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Portastudio - Live Looping

I'm continuing with my goal of turning my Tascam Portastudio 424 into a live performance instrument.  A key step was to take a regular cassette tape and to turn it into a continuously looping tape.  At normal speed on the Portastudio, my loop tape gives about a 5 second loop.  In trying to use the Portastudio as a live instrument, I've been learning how to record to the loop tape and to play back from the loop tape all in real time.  As with any instrument, it takes time and practice to figure out the interesting techniques and effects that the instrument enables.  Below is a demo of what I've figured out so far.

Recording to Tape:  To record audio to tape, the Portastudio allows several different methods.  Which method you choose is driven by your needs.  Because I want to use it as a live looper, I'm hoping to find a method that causes the Portastudio to play back the recorded audio as a loop as soon as I finish recording recording it.  Ideally, this will happen with no break in the action.  While this is trivially easy on a digital looper like the Kaossilator, it is a little trickier on a tape-based machine, since live looping is not what this kind of tape-based machine is designed to do.

Punch-In/Punch-Out:  Luckily, the Portastudio is designed to allow you to easily toggle between record and play modes without stopping the tape.  This is the "punch-in"  / "punch-out" practice that allows one to, say, redo a guitar solo without affecting the guitar that was recorded just before and just after the solo.  When we use our loop tape instead of a normal tape, this means that we can hear our loops, then "punch-in" to overwrite all or part of the loop, and then "punch-out" to let the loop resume playing.  You start the process by simply hitting "play" on the Portastudio.  To "punch-in", you hit the Record button (or press the "punch-in/punch-out" footswitch, like I do in the video).  To "punch-out", you hit the Play button again (or press the footswitch again).  At no point do you hit Stop...it just keeps going continuously.

Input Setup:  The Portastudio can configure its inputs a number of ways.  To get the Portastudio to playback your newly-recorded audio as soon as you punch-out, you need to use the configuration shown in the pics below.  The key is that you setup your target track (in this case, Track 1) to record NOT what is directly plugged into Track 1, but instead to record whatever is on the master bus.  You do this by setting the Track 1 Input to "Mic/Line > L".  Here, it'll record whatever is on the left channel of the master bus.  Critically, when the Portastudio is not in record mode, this setting also causes the Portastudio to simply playback whatever is on that track.  This is how you get it to play back the audio (without any further action) as soon as you punch-out.

Overall Configuration To Record to Track 1 and then
Get Instant Playback of Loops After Punching-Out.

Detail view of input settings to record to Track 1 from the master bus and to get instant
playback after punching-out.  My input audio is from the black and red plugs on the
right, which are configured to inject it to the L-R on the master bus.

Cue Bus:  Once you get one track recorded, you'll want to listen to that track while you record the next tracks.  In normal operation, you'd just have those tracks play back their audio on the master bus.  But, once you configure Track 2 to record like we did for Track 1, it'll record everything on the master bus...including your already recorded audio on Track 1.  Bad.  So, what you do is silence the playback of Track 1 on the main bus (by pulling down the volume slider) and instead play Track 1 on the Cue Bus.  As long as your headphone (ie, the "Monitor" buttons) are set to Left+Right+Cue, you'll hear all of the audio nicely.  So, after recording each track to tape, silence it on the main bus and bring it up on the Cue Bus.  Now you're ready for the next Track!

Settings for the Cue Bus so that I hear all tracks via the Cue Bus,
except for Track 1, which was already set for the Master Bus.
Live Effects Loop:  Now we get tricky.  As you saw in the video, after I recorded four tracks onto my loop tape, I hooked up the Monotron Delay to be an effects box for the already-recorded audio.  I was able to selectively and dynamically send audio from different tracks to the Monotron for filtering and echo effects.  I did this by re-using the Cue Bus.  Once my tracks were all recorded, I did the opposite of what I described above -- I moved all of the tracks off the Cue Bus and put them all back onto the Master Bus.  I then set my headphones (ie, the "Monitor" buttons) to listen only to the Master Bus.  That way, I could selectively send channels to the Cue Bus (via the Tape Cue knobs shown above) without hearing it.  Interestingly, the mixed audio on the Cue Bus is available via the "Effects" jack on the back of the Portastudio.  Secretely, this output jack is a stereo output.  One channel is the Effects Bus (which, despite its name, is not helpful in this scenario) while the other channel is the Cue Bus.  So, I plug Cue Bus into the Aux In of my Monotron Delay.  I then leave the Monotron's output plugged into the Master Bus so that I can hear the echos.  Instant live effects!

Configuration of Portastudio to allow live effects using the Cue Bus.
Note that I did not use the Portastudio's Effects Bus, because it does
not allow 100% effected signal, some dry signal must always
be present.  Using the Cue Bus avoids this limitation.

So this is the best setup that I have found for doing live looping with the Portastudio.  The key with this method is that the tape never stops, so your groove can just keep on going.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Portastudio - Defeating the Erase Head

As discussed in my last post, I've been exploring the use of tape loops in my Tascam Portastudio 424.  I'm trying to turn the old Portastudio into a live performance instrument, especially one the allows me to exploit the imperfections in audio cassette technology.  As I started to do live looping, however, I discovered that any loop that I recorded would have a gap in the audio.  I found that, to eliminate this gap, I needed to defeat the erase head on the Portastudio.  Today's post describes that story.  To get started, below are some audio demos with the erase head enabled (like normal) and with it defeated (which gets rid of the gap!).  There's a third track in the playlist that demonstrates how, with the erase head defeated, you can now layer multiple sounds on a single track of tape.  Fun!

The Portastudio 4-Track Cassette Recorder:  Below is a photo of the outside and of the inside of my Portastudio cassette recorder.  Since I have no schematic for my Portastudio (does anyone have one that they can send to me?), I'm forced to figure things out by physical examination.  So, like a doctor poking and prodding, let's begin...

My Tascam Portastudio 424, Outside and Inside

Erase Head vs Record Head:  Since I assumed that my problem with the gap in my recorded loops was due to the erase head, I began my examination with finding the erase head.  As you can see in the picture below, it is nicely labeled.  You can also see that it is indeed physically separated from the play/record head (by about an inch).  When recording (or playing), the tape passes over the erase head to be cleared prior to passing over the record head to receive the new audio.  As a result, there is always a one-inch section of the tape that will contain no audio at all.  This is the gap that I have been hearing in my loops.

The Erase and Play/Record Heads on the Portastudio
Follow the Wiring:  To figure out how I can defeat the erasing process, I looked at the wires that are connected to the erase head to see where they go.  As you can see in the picture above, the wires from the erase head are mostly black, whereas the wires from the play/rec head are gray.  Following those wires back to the main circuit board, I found that the gray wires (the play/rec wires) go back to the four individual circuits on the main PCB.  The erase wires, by contrast, all come back to a single 8-wire connector on the main PCB.

Seeing Where the Erase and Play/Rec Heads are Wired Back to the Main Circuit Board.

Unplug the Connector:  The easiest way to defeat the erase head is, perhaps, simply to unplug it.  So, that's what I tried.

To Disable the Erase Head, Just Unplug the Big Connector

What are the "Erase" Signals:  Because I was interested, I hooked up my oscilloscope to the pins on the connector that I just unplugged.  I wanted to see what signals where being sent to the erase head.  The pictures below show what I found.  The connector has 8 pins, and each pair seem to give similar signals (I'd assume that each pair represents a single channel on the 4-track tape).  For each pair of pins, one pin showed an 87 kHz signal with an amplitude of ~134 mV RMS.  The other pin showed no signal, so it might be ground.  I'm assuming that the 87 kHz is the bias signal used by cassette systems as the carrier for real audio signal that is amplitude modulated on that carrier.  Since this is the erase head, there should be no audio, so it should just be the 87 kHz signal.  This appears to be what I see.

Looking at the Signals on the Connector to the Erase Head.
Looks like the 87 kHz AC bias signal (Left) and Ground (Right).

Trying it Out:  So, with the erase head disconnected from the main PCB, I tried recording some audio.  As a sound source, I used my Korg Monotron with its funny little ribbon controller.  As you heard in the demo tracks tat the top, when I defeat the erase head (by disconnecting it from the main PCB), I successfully eliminate the gap from my looped audio.  Fantastic.

Using the Monotron Delay to Create Tracks on the Portastudio

Visualizing the Results:  In addition to listening to the demos, you can see the tracks visually in the spectrograms below.  All of the tracks show recordings from the loop tape of the Monotron.  The top figure shows a single loop of audio excerpted from a recording when the erase head was connected and active.  Note the half-second gap at the end of the loop, which corresponds to that one-inch piece of tape between the erase head and the record head.  The middle plot shows the result after I unplug the erase head.  Note that the gaps is gone...the loop is continuous.  This is what I hoping for.

Spectrograms of the Same Three Audio Demos From the Soundcloud Player at the Top of this Post.

Layering Audio in One Track:  Another important effect of defeating the erase head is that nothing clears the track between recordings.  So, when you go to record audio onto a track, it becomes layered on top of the audio that was already there.  An example of this sound-on-sound recording is given in the third audio demo (and in the third spectrogram above).  Here, I first recorded the basic warbling tone from the Monotron as already seen in my other examples.  This is "Layer A".  Then, onto the same track, I recorded the Monotron with wilder variations in pitch.  This is "Layer B".  As is clear in the audio demo and in the spectrogram, both layers are clearly there.  Note that this is not a mixture that has been done electronically (ie, read the previous track, mix it with the in-coming new audio, then record the mixed audio onto a fresh track).  No, this mixture is being done on the tape itself.  As far as I know this is very uncommon.

Imperfect Layering:  I believe that one reason why it is uncommon to mix audio onto tape this way is because the layering is far from perfect sounding.  Note that as "Layer B" dives from high-pitch to low-pitch (see the blue arrow), it seems to suppress a lot of the "Layer A" sound.  It's not until the pitch of "Layer B" raises a bit that the tone from "Layer A" sounds strong again.  To most people, this interaction between the two layers of audio would be an undesirable trait.  But, not for me...I'm purposely looking for unusual side-effects of using tape.  So, to me, this kind of weird artifact is gold!

Moving Forward:  Right now, to enable or disable the erase head, I need to use that connector inside of the Portastudio.  It would be great if I could put it on a switch so that it was accessible on the outside of the Portastudio.  Unfortunately, switching 8 signals (there are 8 pins on that connector) is a hassle.  I'm hoping that, with more exploration, I can confirm that I only need to switch 4 of the signals (maybe just the grounds need to be connected or disconnected).  If so, this will be a great behavior to have switchable.

Have any of you hacked your cassette recorders?  What have you done?

Monday, February 10, 2014

Cassette Tape Loop

Over the weekend, after finishing up on my MIDI-to-Trigger converter, I got the idea to dig out my old Tascam Portastudio 4-track cassette recorder (from the early '90s!) and to see what kind of weird noise-hacking fun I could have with the old girl.  I had this vision that I could turn it into a monster multi-track tape delay machine with cool sound-on-sound looping.  Man, I was getting excited.  Before, before diving into modifications of the hardware, I decided to start a little more simply...I decided to start with making a tape loop from a cassette.  In the video below, you can see what I did and get a quick demo.  I got really lucky and ended up with a sweet saxophone loop.  Nice!

If you'd like to make your own cassette loop (for use in a normal cassette deck, or in a fancy 4-track cassette recorder), there are lots of videos and how-to pages on the internet.  While I found them helpful, I found that practice was the key.  In my photos below, I don't really shed any new light on the matter, but maybe you'll see something that isn't available elsewhere.

First, start with a cassette.  I started with an old one of mine that had material already on it.  If you're really good, you can purposely excerpt a piece of tape with an audio segment that you're purposely trying to loop.  I didn't have such high hopes.  I just grabbed a tape that was in the same box as my 4-track cassette recorder.  It was a cassette that originally had an Ani DiFranco album (that I recorded from CD probably around 1998).  I then re-purposed the cassette to record a jam session at a friend's house (Hi Paula!) in 2000 ("Alpine Music Fest").  Since I have all of that material elsewhere, I decided that this is a good tape to sacrifice for my experiments with making a cassette loop.

An old cassette.  It once was Ani DiFranco.  Then it was re-used to record
a jam session.  "Alpine Music Fest 2000".

Below, you can see the cassette after I opened it up.  With it open, I cut the tape and removed the tape from the two white plastic spools.

I opened up the cassette to remove the long spools of tape.

I then started trying to make my tape loops.  As mentioned later, it took me four tries to get one that worked.  The photo below is the configuration that eventually worked...I used both plastic spools.  With both spools in place, I cut a segment of tape that was approximately correct in length, including a small amount of overlap...about half an inch (~1 cm) is probably sufficient, though you might want a little more overlap just to make it easier to handle.

I cut a short segment that would fit once around.

Then, I got out my adhesive tape.  You want something really thin, so I tried my generic brand and my name brand tapes.  For my first two trials (both failures), I used the name brand "Scotch" tape shown on the right.  For my third trial (also a failure) and for my fourth trial (a success), I used the store brand.  The store brand did seem better in this case...the Scotch brand was "matte finish", which meant it was thicker.  No good.  Go for the thin (but sticky!) stuff.

The cheap clear adhesive tape on the left worked much better
than the "fancy" adhesive tape on the right.

Once you've picked the tape that you want to use, you need to cut a *really* small piece.  It should be more narrow than the audio tape...and it shouldn't be too long.  You can see my piece of tape in the photo below.

I then cut the smallest piece of adhesive tape ever.

Next is the really tricky part.  You need to use the little piece of adhesive tape to splice together the ends of the audio tape.  While it's OK to have the ends of the audio tape overlap, it is very important that they are align straight.  If you don't have a "splicing block" (I don't have one), then this is where you just need to try it and practice.  It was really hard at first.  Then, I got a system that worked really well for me.  You can see the results below.
I used the little piece of adhesive tape to splice the audio tape it into
a single loop.  It ended up being about 5 seconds long.
The only thing wrong with the photo above  is that the tape is too tight.  When it didn't work (at first), I tried loosening the tape a little bit.  How?  Well, if you look closely down by each one of the little white rollers, you'll see that the tape goes around a thin dark-plastic post.  To make my tape loop a little looser, I pulled up the tape and allowed it to NOT pass around one of those posts.  This was just the amount of slack that it needed.  It worked!  Yay!

To finish the loop, you can use your scissors to trim away any audio tape that overlaps at the splice.  You don't need to get it perfect, but it is good to minimize the overlapping tape.  Then, put the cover back on the cassette and screw it back together.  Oh, and then rename the cassette.  In my case, this is its third name!

Here's the re-assembled cassette.  Ani DiFranco  and the Alpine Music Fest
 have now become a loop tape!

Now it's ready to be put in your cassette deck and played.  If you're like most people, your first bunch of trials won't work.  But if you keep trying, you'll get there.  As you can see in my video, I had a cool loop already recorded onto my loop tape.  Maybe you'll get lucky, too!

With excitement, I popped it into my 4-track cassette recorder and gave it a listen.
It didn't work.  The tape wouldn't move.  So I tried again.  And again.  And again.
On my fourth attempt, though, it worked great!
My next steps are to record some droning sounds on the four different tracks so that I can dynamically mix them together in a moody way.  I'm thinking that it will sorta be like my Kaossilator Pro (which is built to have four independent loops)...except the tape-based loop will be dirty sounding and not clean like the Kaossilator.  Hopefully, it'll be dirty in a good way.

After that, my plan is to see if I can defeat the erase head on the Portastudio so that I can attempt sound-on-sound layered recording.  Again, it'll be like the Kaossilator (which does sound-on-sound) except the Portastudio can add all of the sound mangling artifacts that come with audio cassettes.  Here I'm particularly interested in what happens when you overload the tape (ie, write on it many times without erasing) and what happens when you bounce back and forth between tracks so many times that the generational losses become dominant.  This could be seriously fun!

Do any of you have experience with tape loops or with hacking cassette decks?

Follow-Up: I show how to defeat the Erase Head here.

Follow-Up: I use my Tascam 4-track as a live-looping instrument here.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Arpeggiator Fun -- Dual Arps and MIDI Sync

In my previous post, I described how I made an Arduino-based MIDI-to-Trigger converter so that I could combine my love of old-school arpeggiators with newer MIDI-equipped drum machines.  I gave a video demo of me driving the arpeggiator of my Korg Mono/Poly using the MIDI Clock output from my Korg Kaossilator.  In this post, I take it one step further.  Today, I'm going for gold...I'm going to drive two arpeggiators at the same time.  Twice the fun!

As shown above, the setup is pretty straight-forward.  The Kaossilator is providing a MIDI clock signal.  I connect it's MIDI Out to the MIDI in on my homemade trigger converter.  My converter has two trigger outputs.  I connect one trigger output to the "Arp Trig In" jack on the Mono/Poly and the other trigger output to the similar jack on the Polysix.

I'm Using Trigger Outputs for Dual Arpeggiator Glory!

Below is a demo using this setup.  It is a single-take where all instruments are playing live without any sequencing or anything from the computer.  It's just the arpeggiators from the two synths and the Kaossilator.

A key feature of the track above is that I set the arpeggiators to play at different rates.  I did this using the potentiometer knobs on my MIDI-to-Trigger converter.  The effect is apparent right at the beginning of the track where the Polysix is playing one note every four beats whereas the Mono/Poly is rippling out eighth notes.  The Kaossilator is providing the drums.  Without my MIDI-to-Trigger converter, it would not have been possible to keep the drums in sync with the two arpeggiating synthesizers.  It's much more fun this way.

For a second demo of this setup, the track below is also a live-recording of the Polysix plus Mono/Poly plus Kaossilator.  In this track, though, the kick drum and snare sounds are actually being produced by the Mono/Poly (it's a very flexible synth).  The arpeggiating synth is the Polysix.  Everything else (hi-hats, bass sounds, leads) are all from the Kaossilator.

So, that's the fun that I've been having hooking everything together.  Sure, by modern standards of EDM, this might not be too exciting...but I could play with these kinds of sounds for hours.  I just love the sound of it all.

Use the comment section below and share with me your own joys with arpeggiators!

Arpeggiator Fun -- My MIDI-to-Trigger Converter

I'm going to admit it...I love arpeggiators.  I love their inhumanly-perfect, never-ending rippling waves of beautifully-synthetic tones.  It's so hypnotizing to me.  What I like even better is if I add a drum machine to play along with the arpeggiator.  But how do you keep the two devices in sync with each other?  In a previous post, I showed how I used the "trigger out" of my old TR-707 drum machine to drive the arpeggiator on my Korg Polysix.  While that worked fine, my newer drum machines don't have trigger outputs.  Instead, they output MIDI.  Since my synths don't talk MIDI, today's post shows how I built a MIDI-to-Trigger converter using an Arduino.  The video below is a quick demo...

What Does the Converter Do?  I have two old synths -- a Korg Mono/Poly and a Korg Polysix.  Both of these synths have a built-in arpeggiator and both synths have a jack on the back for "Arpeggio Trig In".  If you send a voltage pulse into this jack, it will cause the arpeggiator to step to the next note.  As a result, you can keep the arpeggiator in sync with old drum machines that have trigger outputs (such as my old TR-707).  My Korg Kaossilator, however, is much newer and it does not output trigger signals.  Instead, it sends out a MIDI clock signal.  My synths are too old for MIDI.  So, if I want to keep my Kaossilator in sync with my Mono/Poly or my Polysix, I need a device to listen to the MIDI messages and to issue trigger pulses at the right times.  That's what my MIDI-to-Trigger converter does.

The Shopping List:  The heart of my MIDI-to-Trigger converter is an Arduino Uno ($30).  To enable it to receive MIDI messages, I used a Sparkfun MIDI Shield ($20) that has the female MIDI connectors and the associated electronics to get the MIDI messages into the Arduino.  Helpfully, the MIDI shield also includes two potentiometers and three push buttons.  Very nice!  To physically connect the MIDI shield to the Arduino, I also had to buy some stackable headers ($1.50).  Finally, to get the trigger signals out of the Arduino and headed towards my synth, I chose to buy some 1/8" stereo audio jacks ($1 each), though any jacks will do (1/8" or 1/4" or whatever).  I chose to include two audio jacks so that I can drive two arpeggiators at the same time (ie, both my Mono/Poly and my Polysix) because, if one arpeggiator is good, two must be even better!

The components in my MIDI Clock to CV Trigger Converter.

Assembling the Hardware:  The MIDI shield comes as a kit that you need to solder together yourself, which is pretty direct and easy.  After the shield was assembled, I then needed to attach my two audio jacks to convey the trigger signals out to my synths.  Unfortunately, there are no solder holes on the Arduino or on the MIDI shield for attaching jacks or wires.  So, I chose to solder some wires to the pins that connect the MIDI shield to the Arduino.  Usually, this is not recommended approach, and you should be aware that it is a bit challenging to do (notice the tight space in the picture below) but it did work for me.

A kludge.  I'm soldering the wires to my audio jack to the pins on
the MIDI Shield that will mate to the Arduino.  Generally,
this is not recommended, but it works.

Once the wires are attached to the MIDI shield, then you just have to attach the jacks to the other end of the wires.  As shown in the picture below, soldering to the jacks is much easier.

Soldering the wires onto the audio jack.  These don't carry audio.
They carry the CV Trigger signals.

Finally, once all of the soldering is done, you simply mate the MIDI shield to the Arduino.  The hardware is done!

My fully-assembled device for converting MIDI Clock to CV Triggers.

Writing the Basic Software:  For the Arduino, I wrote some software that listens for the messages coming in from the MIDI port.  MIDI is quite general (it's not just about keeping time) so my Arduino is programmed to ignore most of the traffic on the MIDI bus.  It is listening solely for MIDI Beat Clock messages (ie, code 0xF8).  The MIDI standard says that there should be 24 of these messages arriving for every quarter note.  So, if I want a 16th note arpeggiation, and since a 16th note is a 1/4 of a quarter note, I programmed the Arduino to issue a trigger pulse after every 6 MIDI clock messages (because 24 * 1/4 = 6).  To actually issue a "trigger pulse", the Arduino briefly raises (or lowers) one of its digital output pins.  That's the trigger signal.  That's all it takes!

Adding Fancy Features:  Once I had the basic software working, I started adding features.  First, because some arpeggiators like upward-pulses and other like downward-pulses, I wrote the software to do both.  That's why I use stereo jacks for my outputs...the "left" channel is upward going while the "right" is downward going.  The next feature that I added is a second set of trigger outputs to drive a second arpeggiator (hence my inclusion of the second audio jack).  Then, to be adjust the speed of the arpeggiators relative to the MIDI clock (do I want 16th notes?  8th notes?  whole notes?), I program the Arduino to read the two potentiometers and to set the MIDI clock divider (that number "6" discussed in the paragraph above) to make the triggers come faster or slower.  This is pretty sweet.

Sharing My Software:  I case anyone is interested, you can get the latest version of my MIDI-to-Trigger Arduino software at my GitHub, which is here.  If you make improvements, send me a pull request!

 Trying it Out:  So, for my initial trials, I kept the setup simple.  My Korg Kaossilator is going to be my drum machine.  I'm going to have it drive the arpeggiator on my Mono/Poly.  So, as shown in the figure below, I connected the Kaossilator's "MIDI Out" to the "MIDI In" on the Arduino MIDI-to-Trigger Converter.  Then, I connected a cable from one of my converter's outputs to the "Arpeggiator Trig In" jack on the back of my Mono/Poly.

You can see the connections to my MIDI-to-Trigger converter in the photo below.

Connections to my MIDI converter.  The Kaossilator is coming in via the MIDI
cable on the top left o the device.  The Mono/Poly (off screen) arpeggiator
trigger is driven by the 3.5mm audio cable on the bottom of this picture.

As seen in the picture below, with all of these extra wires running around, the setup gets a little messy.

Zooming out to see the whole setup.  Wires everywhere!

Once it was all connected together, I started some drum loops on the Kaossilator.  Then I activated the arpeggiator on the Mono/Poly, I set it to "Latch", and then I locked in a few notes.  And then nothing happened.  After chasing down a couple of bugs in my software, I tried again.  And then again.  And eventually, I got it to work.  The arpeggiator was stepping in sync with the Kaossilator.  It was glorious.  As shown in the video at the top of this post, I can change tempo and it all keeps going in sync.  It's pretty fun.

Next Steps:  The next steps are to run the arpeggiator on my Mono/Poly and the one on my Polysix at the same time.  That'll be a really fun.  Look for a follow-on post!