Monday, November 28, 2011

Turkey Chipotle Tortilla Soup

I came back home this weekend with a container full of turkey and turkey stock... and some ideas! I've made "tortilla soup" before with the more usual chicken and chicken stock, but this is so tasty I had to share. The masa acts as a thickener and adds a wonderful corn flavor to the whole dish. Although I put some crumbled tortilla chips on top of the soup, really it's completely uneccesary- you get plenty of corn flavor from the masa and the kernel corn. I generally don't like soggy pieces of tortilla floating in my soup, which is why I add the masa instead of regular tortillas. After all, tortillas are made from masa! I also would have added some chopped cilantro after I was done simmering, but I didn't have any. Whole cooked beans would be great too.

Whatever you do, don't skip the lime juice! It really makes the dish.

- Leftover turkey (cooked)
- Stock of some kind (homemade turkey stock would be the best, but chicken or veggie would be good too. The stock I had already had some carrots and celery in it- the more the merrier!)
- Onion, diced
- Garlic, minced or powdered (if using minced, quickly fry it before adding it to the pot)
- Some kind of diced green chile (I used poblano, you could use jalapeño or green bell pepper if you can't handle any heat)
- Chipotles en adobo (2 or more, diced) ***
- Some kind of dried red chile (I used ancho powder)
- A small can of tomato sauce (I used a 6oz can, I think)
- 2 tablespoons prepared dry masa, i.e. Maseca brand
- Corn (I used frozen yellow kernel corn)
- the juice of 1 small lime
- Salt, pepper, cumin


1) Bring the stock and meat to a simmer
2) Add the chipotles, dried red chile, and tomato sauce
3) Combine the masa and some water in a glass; stir to combine, then pour into the pot
4) Taste and adjust seasonings, adding salt, pepper, garlic, and cumin etc. to taste
5) Once everything is nice and simmer-y, add in the onion and green chile
6) Simmer that stuff for about 5 minutes
7) Turn off the heat, then add the corn
8) Serve and enjoy! Even better the next day

Top with crumbled tortilla chips, or tortilla strips, more diced onions, avocado, julienned cabbage, pickled jalapeños, cilantro, etc.

*** Awesome tip! ***
When you buy a can of chipotles en adobo, sometimes it's hard to use all of them at once- especially if you're heat averse. The best way to save them for later is to pull out each chipotle and place it on a baking sheet covered with aluminum foil, then put that in the freezer. After a few hours, pick up the chiles and put them in a ziplock bag back in the freezer. Now you can grab as many or as few chipotles as you need for your recipe.

Chipotles en adobo (dried smoked jalapeños in a vinegar-tomato sauce)

Monday, November 21, 2011

Beckstrom Holiday Extravaganza! "Liner Notes"

The "studio" (aka second bedroom) - Just outside the frame are piles of instruments, papers, and fishing lure-making supplies

If I remember what it was like to purchase real life CD's, back in the day known as compact disks, I think they usually came with some kind of explanation about what was recorded on the plastic disc. With digital internet downloads, it's easy to lose that kind of explanation about what you're hearing... I suppose I could have put this stuff in a PDF that you download with the audio files from, but I think this way works too. In fact, maybe better! If you just want to hear the music, you don't have to worry about all these technical details.

If you want to know what that weird sound was, read on!

Frosty the Snowman

Last week I discovered Herbie Hancock had a disco phase. This blew my mind, because not only do I love Herbie Hancock, but I also love disco. Not only does Herbie have some disco albums, he uses vocoder extensively on these tracks! After listening to "I Thought it was You" continuously for about 48 hours, I knew what I had to do.

I recorded the live drums with only my Edirol R-09 recorder (2 condenser mics) and mixed it in with some more of my favorite TR-808. The Korg M1 patch "Piano 16" (preset #01") supplies the extremely 80's piano hook. I kept thinking I stole the hook from somewhere; after polling my wife and Facebook, it is kind of from "Hill Street Blues," "Greatest American Hero," "Family Ties," and Chicago's "If You Leave Me Now." Kind of, but not exactly from any of those things. The incredibly awesome "Fretless" (#06") M1 sound provides the baseline. The CS-80 makes another appearance with some wobbly string pads.

For the bridge, I did my best Daft Punk impression- I am a huge Daft Punk fan, which might be obvious by my extensive use of 808's, vocoders, and chord changes like A minor to E minor. Somebody once said disco never died, it just went underground! There really is a huge connection between disco like Herbie's "Sunlight" album and anything Daft Punk has done…

After another set of hooks, I head back to Daft Punk groove land and put in a requisite 80's style sax solo. I remember going to the dentist as a kid, and always hearing these 80's and 90's classics like "Careless Whisper," which always seemed to have a smooth and growling sax solo. Always seemed like the sax player had to be shirtless for it to sound like that. When I recorded the solo, I was fully clothed, although I did go through my tube preamp to get some fatness to the sound.

Little Drummer Boy

This is another Christmas tune I've never especially liked. I've avoided it at all costs having never heard a version I particularly liked. What changed my mind? My good friend Beth Caucci requested it.

The first thing I thought of was a whole mess'o funky drums. It is called drummer boy, after all. I didn't think samples would do the trick- I needed REAL drums. Turns out I had some perfect drums already! Early in the summer I was working on a funk EP that never got realized (I mostly lost interest and went fishing instead). After hours at work, I found a drum practice room, set up a bunch of mics, and laid down some drum tracks. I don't remember exactly what micas I used, but I was incredibly happy with the sound! That was the first time I'd put a mic UNDER the snare drum, which is now pretty much my favorite thing ever. Makes them SNAP.

The original drums track was supposed to accompany an original funk tune, which hits and fills that corresponded to the tune's baseline. No matter, I figured I'd just plop them into Ableton live and make them work. Although they were recorded at one tempo, it was easy to make them a little faster in Live. Once they were in, I laid down tons of tracks on top of them. My main inspiration was the amazing Herbie Hancock tune "Spank-a-lee."

I put in some congas that I recorded earlier as well, and layered on piles and piles of other stuff. I put my Korg Monotron- my one and only analog synthesizer - to good use, punctuating the track with futuristic synth explosions. It's a very fun instrument to play.

For the saxophone solo, I duplicated the track, took it down an octave, completely ripping off the technique from Joshua Redman's album "Elastic." The lick at the end of the tune is almost wholesale stolen from a repeating lick on "Spank-a-lee," which might be my favorite lick of all time! I've been working on my own virtual modular synthesizer (the Becktone 3000), and I found plenty of places to stick that in the track. The buzzy baseline, some of the synth explosions, some of the melody lines; that's all Becktone 3000!

Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer

A couple years ago, my friend Victor Chaga introduced me to the kuduro music of Buraka Som Sistema. Basically it's TR-808 informed portugeuse-african dance music. It's super funky, super energetic, and at times relatively abstract. I wanted to try and do my version of kuduro for this track.

Working on the Becktone 3000, I discovered a way to make a bell-like sound. Using a sine wave LFO to modulate the pitch of another sine wave oscillator, I turned up the LFO frequency to the human hearing range. In other words, there was vibrato happening extremely quickly- instead of a few times per second, it was happening around 10,000 times per second (i.e. 10kHz). For some reason, this sounds kind of like metallic bells. (The technical term for this is Frequency Modulation, or FM synthesis. Famous synths like the Yamaha DX7 use this type of synthesis.) It's a common thing on a Christmas album to have the classic tubular bell sound, so I figured I'd do my version. That's what you hear at the beginning and end of the track.

Ring mod by chrisbeckstrom

The drums are from the summer session, originally destined for a completely different track. Does that count as sampling? I put some Nord Electro wurlitzer on top, and things were coming together! I originally tried using shouted vocals for the melody (kind of like some kuduro) but ended up using the vocoder. (That's the robotic sound I use so often.) That's me singing, kind of. As I worked on the track, it reminded me a little of Keith Jarrett's "Spiral Dance" (but Keith's is way awesome…) Probably good I kept it so short, as you can only take a vamp for so long!

White Christmas

My new favorite band is Little Dragon. Thanks to Taylor O'Donnel and Ryan Andrews, I am now aware they exist, and am completely in love with their sound. A lot of their stuff has a big digital synth vibe to it, which I've never been too interested in.. However, hearing how awesome and funky old school digital sounds can be, I was determined to attempt my own 80's pop/electro arrangement.

My "tape machine"
I've been playing around with the Korg M1, one of the most popular and widely used digital synthesizers. It came out in the late 80's (or 90's?) and has a very digital sound. In the past I've avoided this type of sound at all costs, but for this track I decided to embrace it! The opening sound of the track is a combination of the "Bell Ring" patch (#35 on the M1) and the amazing "Lore" patch (#30) recorded and reversed. The strings that come in is a patch I came up with on the virtual Yamaha CS-80 made by Arturia. In keeping with my attempt at 80's electro, for the drums I dug up some samples of the classic LinnDrum drum machine. This was one of the first drum machines to use samples instead of synthesizing sounds. I recorded the drums onto cassette tape to get some more punch (and tape hiss), and the track was almost done! The vocoder makes yet another appearance here.

The final step was a synth solo at the end, played on the Becktone 3000. I was thinking of Geoff Keezer's synth solos on the Christian McBride album "Live at Tonic," where he manipulates the filter cutoff as he plays what I think is a Moog. I don't have a Moog, but I do have a Becktone.

Feliz Navidad

I'm going to be honest here, I very much dislike the original "Feliz Navidad." Although I like that it's in both English and Spanish, I never cared for the song much. I thought maybe I could do a 30 second 8-bit version of it, just because. As I started working on it, I tried out some reharmonizations- keeping the melody the same but changing the chords underneath. Instead of the normal D major, I made it B minor. Instead of using premade 8-bit sounds (like the amazing YMCK Magical 8-Bit plug VST plugin or the equally awesome Chipsounds plugin) I loaded up about 15 tracks of Ableton's Operator synthesizer, chose digital waves, made them monophonic, turned off the anti-aliasing feature, and put MIDI arpeggiators in the signal path. Since I couldn't modulate the pulse-width of square waves in Operator (technically, changing the length of the duty cycle, in case you're interested) I loaded up some instances of Ableton's Analog, where I could change this. I heavily quantized everything, so every 16th note fell exactly into the 16th note slot, which is something I don't do very often.

All of this was to emulate the way vintage video game sounds sounded. Although I have none of the technological limitations those original composers had, I wanted to limit myself so it would sound more "video-gamey." I created some drum sounds with looped noise oscillators, and used some short LinnDrum samples (heavily bitcrushed) for snare sounds. I also added some effects that change the bit depth and sample rate: basically making things sound less good, which as you may notice is something I really like.

What was originally going to be a 30 second interlude turned into a 4-minute 8-bit jam! After playing a few verses and choruses, I wasn't ready to end the song… I was so in love with the groove and the sounds, I decided to try to make one of those 8-bit solos that sounds kind of improvised and kind of programmed. I tried playing in a solo, but it just sounded wrong- it sounded like somebody trying to improvise a synth solo.

I turned the tempo down to 50 bpm, hit the record button, and played in a solo. My original tempo was 150, so this was 1/3 the speed! For a moment I almost changed the whole tempo down to 50 bpm, it sounded so groovy. I recorded a few passes, then brought the tempo back up to hear the results. Amazing! Maybe not the best solo in the history of improvisation, but it sounded a lot more idiomatic to this style of music! The pitch bends sounded especially cool, so I made sure to add a lot more of those.

The Christmas Song

This is by far my favorite Christmas tune of all time. I remember playing this in high school with the band for our annual Christmas concerts (along with "White Christmas"). I remember loving the harmony of these tunes; to my young ears it was so refreshing to play such harmonically rich music. Not that I don't like some of the other things we played, but this stuff sounded so exotic to me.

The past two years I wanted to do an arrangement of this song, but nothing I came up with seemed to do it justice. I didn't want to destroy the original harmony too much, as it was so great. After a few different ideas, I was about to give up hope for this year. In an inspired suggestion, Claire said I should do a "crazy strings Chris Beckstrom-style-arrangement." At first I thought that was a bad idea… But then after some brainstorming on my Nord Electro, I was convinced it was a great idea! Also, I rarely write for anything even close to strings or orchestra, and this would be a good challenge. I tell my students all the time how to make their virtual orchestras sound better, it would be interesting to see if I could actually make a fake orchestra sound realistic.

I opened up Logic (every other track was done in Ableton Live) and loaded up 20 or so tracks of Vienna Symphonic Library. Vienna is a fancy sample library, which basically allows you to emulate each instrument in an orchestra. Piece by piece, I recorded each part of the orchestra, strangely starting at the top with the first violins. Usually with a piece like this I'd open up Sibelius and *actually* arrange it with notes and chords and everything. Not this time- I had an idea what kind of orchestration I wanted, so I just played in each part one at a time, putting together chords from the top down. It's amazing how much more epic everything sounds with some strings on it… As I added more strings, I turned up my reverb more and more, trying to create a bigger space for orchestra as it grew.

The beginning would be a mostly-normal arrangement of the song, with rhodes, bass, and drums. I was thinking about how Brad Mehldau might arrange this song (a la the album "Largo" or something, if Brad Mehldau weren't that great at playing piano). The second section would be have the vamp I came up with on the Nord, with the melody superimposed on top of the unrelated harmony. After a few hours going late into the night, I had what kind of sounded like an orchestra in my computer, and I was pretty satisfied.

Recording drums in the garage
The next day I set up the drums in the garage so I could add them to the track. I recorded the drums at tempo, listening to the track in headphones. I imagined the drummer from John Zorn's "free jazz" band (the Masada quartet with Dave Douglas) and how he might approach an arrangement like this. I hoped my crazy drum playing would disguise my lack of chops! I was pretty happy with the sound of the drums- I used all the mics I have at home for the drums. A put an SM57 very close to the snare (to get the brushes sound), a Rode NT1 a few inches above the hit, my Edirol R-09 recorder (condenser mic pair) about 3 feet away from the drums, and my homemade sub-bass (a speaker used as a mic) right next to the bass drum. I didn't mic the floor tom at all, and I absolutely LOVE the sound of it in this mix- it sounds far away and reverby- you can hear the garage, but in a good way! For the second part of the song, I put the SM57 underneath the snare to get more SNAP. I also made sure to reverse the phase: otherwise I would lose the snare in my mix! I would get plenty of the top snare from the NT1, so I wasn't worried. Listening back through my headphones, I was immensely happy with the way the drums sounded. With my bare-bones and rag-tag selection of microphones, I liked the sound of my drums a lot. I recorded a few takes into Ableton Live, and that was that.

The final step was adding the tenor saxophone, which I chose to play the melody in the second half. I recorded it in using my NT1, and ran that through my Art MP tube preamp for some more fatness. The tenor still wasn't doing it for me, so I added a little bit (maybe too much) ring modulation. (That's the strange sound you hear when the tenor plays.)

My favorite part is the bridge, when everything stops and the strings play the melody. As I was playing the strings in, to my ears it sounded surprisingly Bernard Herrmann-esque. Especially with the vibes! Except for the TR-808 drum machine samples and funky acoustic drums. And the TR-303 acid bass that accompanies the entire second half….

Hark the Herald Angels Sing

This was the first track I worked on, and I basically throw the kitchen sink at it: sampled TR-808 drum machine (my favorite drum sounds), the Korg Monotron (my favorite noise-maker), the Stylophone Beatbox, and heavy usage of the amazingly insane Audio Damage Ratshack Reverb (it's actually delay). This was the only track where I used sampled vocals- the part at the beginning is the Mac speech voice reading back the lyrics, put through the Ableton Live resonator plugin to make it pitched. I found the vocals at the end somewhere on YouTube, pitch shifted to fit my key. The little vamp in between sections is another homage to Herbie Hancock, but in a much, much weirder way.

O Come O Come Emmanuel

I am completely taken with the rhythm known as cumbia. As I understand it, the style comes from Columbia, and is a synthesis of native south american, spanish, and african rhythms. The first time I ever heard this rhythm was in Mexico, when my friend Victor Hernandez-Stumpfhauser invited me to Morelia, Michoacán to play for his brother's wedding. (Michigan - where I'm from, and Michoacán, where he's from, actually have the same linguistic origin. They both refer to a place with a big lake.) Anyway, we played jazz tunes for the wedding, but suddenly every song we played had this particular rhythm, with a heavy emphasis on 1 and 3 (well, really 1 and 2). I asked "Que ritmo estamos tocando?" and they said "Cumbia!!"

And so began my love affair with cumbia- the Columbian rhythm that is so popular in Mexico. Friday I was listening to an album by puertorican rapper Calle 13, heard some cumber, and decided I HAD to put some on my album.

I recorded a few takes of Korg Monotron bass, carefully played in at half speed with a sharpie (the monotron has a ribbon controller for a keyboard, so it's difficult to play it in tune!). The monotron also provided the bubbly hooks, which I panned hard left and right. You can hear the high noise floor of the monotron! But I like it.

The Korg Monotron
All the track needed was more cowbell, some cheesy organ (dialed in on the Nord Electro), and some vocal accompaniment. That's me singing on there, right into the NT1, not pitch shifted at all. I was going for an old "exotica"-style vibe, like Les Baxter or Esquivel. After seeing this youtube video earlier in the day, I completely unintentionally played "the lick" during the organ part...!

Auld Lang Syne

In high school one year around Christmas I got an album of jazz christmas arrangements, I think it was in the checkout lane at Target or something. Most of the arrangements were pretty standard, but at the time it was a complete revelation to me- that you could take such popular and widely-known songs and completely rearrange them into something new. Although the playing wasn't amazing, and the arrangements were less than inspired, I was taken with the idea. In some ways that album may have been the impetus for all these Christmas albums I keep making; perhaps it even inspired my entire approach to arranging existing songs (let's be honest, more like "de-arranging" or "re-arranging").

I recently realized that nowhere on my website ( is there a track of me playing straight up medium swing jazz. Originally I was going to do a chiptune/8-bit version of "Auld Lang Syne", but after doing that with "Feliz Navidad," I decided something else was in order for the happy new year song.

I put an arrangement together in my head; jazz organ version, medium swing, tenor solo- all doing my best impression of Jimmy Smith's "Back at the Chicken Shack" (strangely-panned and out-of-tune tenor solo and all). But that would be too normal… I wondered what it would sound like to write a traditional-style saxophone soli, but instead of alto or soprano saxophone on the top, put an accordion. Saxophones already sound kind of like accordions, it's not THAT much of a stretch. I also thought of a movie I'd seen about Benny Goodman, where he put clarinet on top and totally changed the sound of his band.

The drums for this track were almost the only drums on the album I recorded at the actual tempo. All the other ones I recorded at half speed or faster (I'm not a very good drummer!). After some serious accordion shedding (practicing) I hit the big red record button and laid down some jazz accordion. As I recorded each saxophone part underneath, my soli began to take shape. I was surprised how normal it actually sounded- I thought the accordion would stick out like a sore thumb, but to my ears it fit right in. Maybe I have a strange bias for accordions… So there you have it- there is now an almost straight-ahead jazz tune on my website, where I am not only playing swinging jazz saxophone and organ, but accordion.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Beckstrom Holiday Extravaganza Volume III!

After working on it for a few weeks now, I have finally finished and released my Christmas album! I'll post more about it later, but for your musical and aural enjoyment I offer these sounds to get you in the holiday mood. If you are so inclined, you can listen to the whole thing and even download it for free if that floats your boat.

Happy holidays!

More info at my music site:

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Becktone 3000 gets a face, and more modules

My Max/Msp-made interface for the Becktone 3000
I get obsessed with things pretty quickly, and I'm prone to just as quickly changing my obsession to a new one. That's what has happened recently, going from everything fishing all the time to everything music all the time. By no means have I given up fishing; but due to the colder weather, my lack of desire to freeze my *** off waiting for fish to bite, and my rekindled love for music and music technology, I have fully switched over to music-making mode.

I've been working on my virtual modular synthesizer, the Becktone 3000. A little bit each day; I spend about 3 hours in transit to and from work every day, and that time works really well as synth building time. On one train ride I'll build a ring modulator; on another I'll add another oscillator. It's has many of the features of physically building my own synth, but I can do it on the go!

The Becktone 3000 is really coming along. It is a fully working synthesizer, and I've been using it in the songs I'm working on. So far it's in 3 or 4 tracks on the holiday album. The other day I figured out how to make a ring modulator. To be honest, I don't understand the math of what's happening- something about one signal multiplying with another. All I know is it sounds pretty awesome! It sounds like this:

I've been researching vintage analog synthesizers to figure out what modules I should build for my own synth. Basically, each module does a particular thing to the sound. An oscillator module makes a pitch; a reverb module adds reverb to the sound; a ring modular makes the sound sound robotic and sci-fi, and so on. One module I've never quite understood is the sample and hold module. Again, not entirely sure what is happening exactly, but I certainly know the sound. If the sample and hold module can mess with the pitch, you get the classic computer working sound:

Creating sounds like this in an instrument I created myself, from scratch, is pretty much just as rewarding as landing a big bass on a lure I made myself! It's just as tasty as eating delicious beans made from scratch. Really, it's all the same. I don't know where this obsession with doing things myself came from. I certainly don't apply it to everything- I don't fix my own car, and I'm basically incapable of repairing my bike; but hey, this is a start.

Every few days I'll open up Max/Msp again, to try and wrap my brain around it. Max is that really difficult and confusing program I mentioned a while back; it's basically like Plogue Bidule but more powerful and harder to use. Yesterday I jumped in again. I decided to try making an interface for my synth in Max. This way I could move knobs in Max, which would send MIDI messages to Plogue, which would change my synth sound. And I could make it look however I want!

After a while, I figured out how to generate MIDI CC messages in Max, and send them to Plogue. The way things are set up are kind of like back end and front end- Plogue is the back end, the thing that makes the sound, but it's horrible to look at. Max is the front end; it doesn't make any sound itself, but it controls the thing that does, and it looks great. The benefit of doing things this way is I have complete control over everything, and can change any part that doesn't work for me.

When moved by my mouse, each one of those knobs sends a message to Plogue saying "Hey Plogue, change this! Move this!" What's even cooler is since I'm being consistent with which MIDI CC's control which parameters in my synth, I can control this interface with my iPhone. That means when I move the "Oscillator 1 wave type" knob on my phone, the "Oscillator 1 wave type" knob in my Max interface moves, which in turn sends a message to Plogue saying "Hey Plogue, change the Oscillator 1 wave type."

It all sounds very complicated, and, well, it is. I apologize for the technical nature of these posts, but I'm pretty sure some people reading this will be into it. Those of you who aren't into it, but have made it this far for some reason, don't worry! Pretty soon I'll be posting more recipes, and come Springtime there will be plenty of fishing posts.

The "guts" or "back end"  of the synth right now (version 74)

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Introducing the Becktone 3000

Well I've gone and done it now, I've given a name to my homemade virtual modular synthesizer. For now at least I'm calling it the Becktone 3000. It's a pretty cool musical instrument, if I do say so myself. Here are some of it's (current) key features:

• 1 oscillator monophonic synthesizer, with a choice of 13 (yes, 13!) waveforms
• 1 multimode filter with adjustable cutoff and resonance
• LFO that can modulate pitch (fine and octave), cutoff frequency, and even oscillator waveform
• LFO has a choice of 6 different waveforms
• Built in tuning note (A 440) for pretending you need to tune software oscillators
• Built-from-scratch mono to stereo single tap delay unit
• Basic (Plogue Bidule factory) step sequencer
• ...and best of all, a super awesome multi-touch interface from which to control it!

The oscillator module (the oscillator is the thing
that actually makes the sound)
The filter module - cutoff and resonance can be controlled with one finger in the XY pad on the right
The guts of the synth
I've been working on building this at the same time I'm finishing a film score and working on my upcoming holiday album. This afternoon I was working on "Little Drummer Boy," and found a lot of ways to get the Becktone in the mix. Even with just one oscillator, I've been able to get some pretty nice and fat (and raw) sounds out of this thing. Using the built-in delay in combination with other reverb or delay, it sounds pretty retro.

Here's what it sounds like:

The Becktone 3000 - some sounds by chrisbeckstrom

It's still rough and raw, but I'm pretty happy with it. It was pretty satisfying to record it onto a track, making musical use out of this thing I've spent hours working on. I could just as easily open up any number of other virtual synthesizers, but this one is mine.

If there are any other Plogue Bidulers out there, or if anybody is interested in taking a look at my synth, you can download the whole thing from here. (It's a very small file, ~20kb). It's messy, and I'm sure there are things I could do differently, but there it is. I'll be improving it very soon!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Making touch controllers and homemade synthesizers

Look at all those faders! This is the Arturia CS-80v software synthesizer
Well, I haven't been fishing lately. As I mentioned last week, my fishing obsession has been put on hold to make way for my obsession with music. I've been busy doing a lot of musical things: I'm working on a short film for director Mary Horan, putting the finishing touches on the score to her great film "Storywoods." I've also been pretty obsessed with some geeky tech stuff too...

I'm sure this has never come up in my fishing posts, but I'm obsessed with synthesizers. Maybe when you think of that word, you think of giant machines with knobs and wires, with a pale skinny dude manipulating the controls; or maybe you think of Yanni, or Vangelis, or Tangerine Dream, or Wendy Carlos; maybe you think of techno. I do actually like all of those things, but to me I just like the idea of making new sounds, whether you do that by plugging in some cables, or typing some code, or blowing into a saxophone. Synthesizers are just another way to make sounds! I'm particularly interested in the old school analog synthesizers. I have this great software synthesizer, the Arturia CS-80v. It's great, but it's interface is tiny and it has so many faders! Check out this awesome video about the original and software version:

I've been playing with this amazing software called TouchOSC, which lets you design your own interfaces on iOS (and Android) devices. (The iOS app is $4.99, but the editor is free.) These virtual buttons, knobs, and faders can send MIDI messages to computers over a wireless network. Effectively, this means any kind of MIDI based stuff on your computer can be controlled with futuristic-looking controls on your iPad! It looks like Tron.

As you can see by the picture of the CS-80v, it's very complicated. The worst part about the program is you can't zoom! It's basically impossible to manipulate the controls in any musical way with your mouse... This has prevented me from playing with this synth very much.

Enter TouchOSC! I made a custom interface for the CS-80v, which lets me control - with my fingers - basically every single knob and fader on the screen. My iPad interface looks like this:

Doesn't that look nicer? And I can move everything with my fingers, up to 10 faders at once
Each one of those faders sends a MIDI control message to my computer, which in turns relays that to the software, which interprets the messages as "turn this fader X amount." It's pretty cool!

I spent a few hours knob-twisting using my iPad, and it's a completely different experience than clicking and dragging on faders. And by different, I mean much much more awesome! And of course it makes me feel like I'm in the future.

Not just satisfied playing with existing synthesizers, for a long time I've wanted to get a modular analog synthesizer. Those are the big monsters that are made up of many modules, connected with cables; they can be connected in any way imaginable, and make an infinite variety of sounds. They also cost a LOT of money, which of course I don't have much of. How can I satisfy my urge to build a synthesizer from scratch? Build a synthesizer inside my computer, of course!

If you're into music on computers, you may have heard of Max/Msp, which is a graphical programming environment (software). Basically, that means you can create music-making stuff on the computer, and connect them together with virtual cables. Trying to satisfy my urge to make a synthesizer, I jumped into Max the other day in an attempt to begin my custom instrument.

After four hours of reading tutorials, fiddling with numbers, tweaking the virtual cables, I wasn't even able to make a sound. Max/Msp is incredibly complicated, and the learning curve is incredibly steep. Maybe it's just me, but it isn't very intuitive. I'd like to think I'm pretty tech-savy, and I couldn't even make a sound. Defeated, I wondered if building my own virtual modular synthesizer was beyond my abilities...

Like the cavalry riding in with trumpets blaring, I remembered another graphical programming environment I've used before called Plogue Bidule. This program is used by a wide range of musicians in a wide range of applications, but most of my experience with it has been using it to host virtual software instruments to facilitate film scoring. It excels at that, but if you delve a little deeper, Bidule is capable of much more. Every little module you'd need to make a virtual musical instrument sits inside Bidule, waiting for you to connect it to something else. It's also much easier to use than Max.

An early version of my virtual modular synthesizer
1 oscillator, 1 LFO modulating pitch, 1 LP filter,
and a made-from-scratch mono delay unit
I opened up Bidule, and within 60 seconds I had a sound. Success! This was where I would build my synthesizer. I wasn't sure exactly how to do everything I'd need to do, but I jumped in, google-searching every few minutes to get answers. After a while, I had created my very first made-from-scratch virtual software synthesizer. When I pressed a note on my keyboard, I was rewarded with the loud and obnoxious sound of a low square wave.

This was just the beginning. It wasn't too difficult to build this very simple instrument; what if I added more modules, more cables, more sounds... I could create something huge, and awesome, and unique, and my own. I looked at the clock, and it was way past time to go to sleep.

I tore myself away from my computer, turned off the lights, and headed to bed. In my head I started to imagine all the new modules I could make, the new ways I could connect them, and the new sounds I could create. I thought of TouchOSC, and the awesome looking controls I could design to manipulate my homemade synthesizer.  This was going to be great!

Friday, November 4, 2011

Chris samples some instruments

The amazingly tiny and amazingly awesome sounding Korg Monotron-
my first and only analog synthesizer
As mentioned in the previous post, I have all but made the transition from fishing season to music-making season. For the most part, I stab myself with hooks far less when I'm playing with synthesizers. But don't get me wrong, I freaking LOVE fishing! It's just so darn cold out. Well, it's not that cold, but cold enough I don't want to stand outside for hours just to get a big fat skunk.

The other day I realized you could easily do round robin sampling in Kontakt 5. (Mini-music tutorial for non-music people: when I say sampling, I'm talking about taking sounds of real things, recording them, then making it so I can play those sounds back on my keyboard) That evening, I warned Claire she was about to hear me hitting a snare drum a bunch of times, and I headed into the garage.

I pulled out my hand Edirol R-09 stereo portable recorder, put it on a ladder, assembled one of my snare drums, and started smacking it with a drum stick. A few minutes later, I copied those audio files to my laptop, cut them up in Pro Tools, and loaded them in Kontakt. I recorded 3 velocity levels (loud snare, medium snare, and quiet snare) and 11 samples per velocity level. Using Kontakt's built-in group start options feature, I turned on round robin, and ended up with a pretty nice sounding instrument!

Garage Snare Demo by chrisbeckstrom

What you're hearing is MIDI notes in Logic triggering the sounds I recorded, which are in turn loaded into Kontakt. It turned out so well I had to sample some more stuff.

I love the Korg Monotron. It's a tiny, iPhone-sized analog synthesizer, which now costs about $39. I got it for Christmas last year, and it is pretty great. Most of the sounds I usually use in my music are either created by real instruments or samples of real instruments (i.e. digital). This is my one and only analog synthesizer, so far. A lot of people like the sound of analog stuff; I really like how imperfect they can be. Especially the Monotron...

On my commute home yesterday, I recorded into Pro Tools almost every pitch the Monotron can make. It's difficult because there's no normal keyboard- it's a ribbon controller. You play it with your finger, or a pencil, or anything else, but it's hard to hit specific notes. I loaded up a tuner so I could get accurate pitches, and began recording. A short commute later, I loaded the samples into Kontakt, mapped them to the right keys, and started playing. This is the Kontakt instrument recorded dry, no effects:

Mono monotron by chrisbeckstrom

It sounds pretty close to the real thing, except the pitch-accurateness of it all. And it's next to impossible to play arpeggios on the Monotron. Turning Kontakt to polyphonic (I can play more than one note at a time) it sounds like a completely different instrument:

Polyphonic monotron! Playing jazz by chrisbeckstrom

I was pretty happy with myself! It still sounds pretty rich and analog-sounding, warm and gritty like the Monotron is. Then I added a low pass filter and an LFO to Kontakt, trying to emulate the other features of the Monotron. I tried a few filters, and they didn't cut it (pun intended)... But then I found the "Daft LP" filter. And I was in love. I'll just assume they're talking about Daft Punk, who I love. Here's what my instrument sounds like with an LFO modulating pitch and the Daft low pass filter:

Monotron w filter by chrisbeckstrom

Now THIS sounds like the Monotron I know and love!

I'm going to continue working on this, adding these knobs to the user interface, trying to get it as close to the real thing as possible. Why? After all, I have the real thing sitting right next to me! I'm doing this mostly to see if I can, but also it's really nice to play chords and hear the Monotron. Maybe I could disregard the Daft LP in Kontakt and send the sampled Monotron back out into the actual Monotron's filter. THAT would be cool.

Change of seasons

As you may have noticed, I haven't been fishing much lately. It's been cold, and the past few times I've been out haven't been especially productive.... Or comfortable! I waded the Desplaines last weekend, and although it was nice to wade, the water was ice cold and the fish weren't biting. I don't have fancy neoprene waders; my sweatpants and thin waders were no match for the frigid water. Especially when I went deeper....

The other day I stopped by the retention pond for one last hurrah. It was freaking cold out, but I managed what is probably my last bass of the year! On a homemade lure, no less. Those black fury knockoffs I've been making work pretty well. So far I know they can catch catfish and bass.

Notice the awesome hat- it was very cold that day
So far pretty much every post here has been about fishing (it's called "CB Fishes" after all..) but there is a subtitle in there: "...and cooks and makes music and stuff." I've posted a few recipes, and mentioned my music making in passing, but for the next few months I will probably be posting more about music and food than fishing. If all you want to read about are my misadventures in fishing, don't worry! Whenever I head out to wet a line I'll post about it, but realistically it probably won't happen much for a while. Come Spring, I'll be flooding the internet with novel-length fishing entries once again. I'll be making lures throughout the cold months, so I'll post about those adventures too.

So I've been changing gears, from one obsession to another. Fishing is a relatively new thing for me- as you can tell by my posts- but music as always been my main obsession. Before I had a full time job with downtime used exclusively for fishing, I was a freelance gigging musician/composer/whatever. Every moment of my time was spent thinking about music, practicing music, trying to get gigs, and making music. Since I've been gainfully employed, I've discovered the joy of hobbies. When my income depended solely on my effort, I had no time for non-musical endeavors.

Now that I don't make my living making music, my music-making activity comes in spurts. Right now I'm transitioning from obsessed-with-fishing season to obsessed-with-music-making season. The timing works out well; for the past two years, I've been releasing a freely-downloadable Christmas album. My lovely wife suggested I do it, and what a great idea it was.

If you feel like getting in the holiday mood already, you can play the previous two albums right here. If you like them enough, you can download them too!

Last year's:

The original, from 2009:

Lately I've been playing in Ableton Live, working on some holiday songs, sampling instruments in my garage, playing with Kontakt, my Korg Monotron, and generally being obsessed with music and music technology. Normally all this stuff happens in my headphones, and I'm pretty much the only one who hears most of this stuff (besides my students, who are occasionally forced to listen to my most recent creations).

Now that I've got a blog, I plan on sharing details of my musical adventures just like I've been sharing my fishing adventures. Fall and Winter are actually my favorite times to cook, so I'll also be posting lots of recipes. I've got a Bell's Brown Ale beef stew recipe to write up, as well as one for slow-cooked ancho chile pork. And one for Beckstrom Molé...

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Way overdue! Fishing in Cleveland

Edgewater Park, Cleveland

Well this post is a long time coming! It's been I think two weeks since this fishing trip... I haven't had a chance to post this for a bunch of reasons, not the least of which is I was crazy sick sunday through tuesday last week. That's right- I almost never get sick, and I've now been sick twice in the last four weeks... what gives? Hopefully I get the facts right in the series of events; it's been a while, things are a little fuzzy.

Claire and I were in Cleveland last weekend for the Smerglia's Halloween Potluck party- well, that and some fishing. Friday night, Leo and I spent what seemed like hours trying to get my Ohio fishing license reprinted (I left mine at home). The guy operating the computer apparently forgot his password, and was telling us it was impossible to reprint my license and I'd have to shell out another $40 for a non-resident license. Leo, who has experience with the computer system from using it at Dick's, saw right through the rouse and was able to make it happen! The manager came over after a while, and between the three of them, eventually I got my little green license. We also picked up enough two liters for a small army of little kids, which turns out was exactly who would be coming over Saturday night.

Saturday morning Leo, Uncle Kevin and I headed out to hit up the big lake. Stopped to fuel up (gas for the car, coffee for me, sprite for Leo, Kevin already had his coffee) and soon we were walking out on the pier at Edgewater Park on Lake Erie. I had researched extensively, and read recent fishing reports from the Ohio DNR, as well as a bunch of local fishing forums. Just as in Chicago, the king salmon run was winding down, dovetailing into the steelhead run. In my mind salmon, those crazy fish who give up eating to come inland and spawn, seem incredibly difficult to catch; but I've already caught a few tiny steelhead. They seem more attainable; at least they still want some food! And in my humble opinion, they are much prettier, and word on the street is they taste even better than salmon. I've had grocery store salmon and grocery store rainbow trout, and based on that I would probably agree.

So we headed out on the pier, visions of steelheads dancing in my head. We were armed with some bright green nightcrawlers Leo picked up, some normal ones, and three tackle boxes worth of the greatest and latest in fish-catching technology. Kevin had a... let's call it retro tackle box filled to the brim with every kind of lure I'm familiar with, and some I'm not! Just to clarify, I thought his tacklebox was awesome.

We set up along the pier, and began casting. Leo shared some crappie rigs- they had some beads and some other lines coming off horizontally, as well as a snap to attach a weight. He'd had luck with that rig here in the past; he tied one on, and so did I. Looking around, we were the only ones on the pier. We started casting.

15 minutes went by without so much as a bite. Pretty early on I lost the crappy rig on some rocks- classic Beckstrom - and began rotating through my normal repertoire. Homemade inline spinners, Mepps, Little Cleos, tube jigs, jig and twisters (in both white AND black!), white spinners, black spinners; and nothing. Except a bunch of lost lures.

Leo and Kevin weren't doing any better, not one of us had even a single bite.

We noticed a guy walk down the pier, sit down on his bucket, and begin fishing with two rods rigged with bobbers and nightcrawlers. Almost immediately, he silently pulled up a nice looking largemouth bass, measured it, and put it in his bucket.

What!? Here we were, standing not 10 feet from the guy, also using nightcrawlers, and we had nothing to show for it. This guy comes in, sits down, and pulls out fish like magic. A few minutes later he has another one. He threw it back because it was too small, and that hurt even more. He was catching so many fish than us he had to throw some back!

As he fished, our eyes were trained on his rig, and immediately Leo and I perfectly replicated what he was using. Bobber, then six feet down the line, a juicy nightcrawler. This would catch fish, right?

Wrong. As this guy proceeded to pull out fish after fish, we proceeded to stare at our bobbers moving in the waves. Other fishermen showed up, using bobbers and nightcrawlers and everything else, but nobody caught any fish.

Leo switched to the other side of the pier- the one the fish whisperer was on - and continued not catching fish. Kevin and I stuck it out on the other side, also not catching fish. After loosing more lures, I climbed up the wall and began fishing the other side with Leo and the fishing expert guy. Pretty soon after that, he switched to the other side- the side where we'd been waterboarding our nightcrawlers for at least an hour straight- and proceeded to catch fish exactly where we had been fishing.

What the hell!? I told Leo I was retiring from fishing. The embarrassment was too much to bear. I mean, I had a fishing blog and 4 or 5 readers to report to, and this would not make an exciting post. How would I tell my faithful handful of followers I had failed them? How I had caught a big fat skunk instead of a big fat steelhead?

After about 3 hours of soaking worms in the choppy water, we conceded defeat. It was a fun if not frustrating outing, and it's always nice to fish with some other people. And really, it's probably for the best that Leo or Kevin didn't catch any fish- had they landed any hogs I would have had no choice but to disown them out of shame. Alas, nobody caught anything, so everything's good! And here I am telling you about it.