Saturday, November 30, 2013

Digital Single: Isotopes For All

The second in my series of free singles is Isotopes For All Parts 1&2. These two tracks date from earlier in the recording sessions than Electro Magnetic, and are a little more indicative of what to expect from the rest of the album.

Bandcamp player:

Isotopes For All - Part 1 was inspired in part by the works of Atomic Shadow. (If you haven't already, I urge you to give him a listen. He has a new album out called City of Chrome and Glass, which is very good). Further inspiration, including the monologue heard in the track, came from a 1953 educational(?) film called A Is For Atom. The naive and alarming nature of the film, juxtaposed as it is with the cute Disney-esque animation, prompted me to re-purpose it in a way that highlights the more disturbing elements of 1950's atomic-age thinking.

Snippets of the soundtrack were copied to cassette tape and the pitch modified manually with my Marantz PMD201 tape recorder. To my mind this further enhanced both the disturbing and comical nature of the monologue. Forming the basis of the music is some quirky synthesized percussion, rendered using the TAL U-No-LX softsynth. Weaving in and out of the track is a bassline constructed on the Korg Monotribe, and an arpeggio from the K-Station. In between the narrated sections, the Roland HS-60 adds some interesting sounds and the K-Station provides a second bassline.



Isotopes For All - Part 2 evolved out of a desire to see how the music would sound with a more conventional beat. It was initially a three-minute recording (this became the 'single edit') of Monotribe bassline and K-Station arpeggio with parameters such as filter-cutoff manipulated in real-time, to which the instrumental parts and drums were added. An early version used the Monotribe's analogue drum sounds, but I found they muddied the mix. An 808 kit from the Boss DR-550 left room in the mix for some phased strings courtesy of the Crumar Performer run through a Small Stone phaser.

After receiving the demo, my friend Jimmy sent me an extended mix of the track he'd put together for fun. I liked it so much that I decided to make a longer version myself, and that's how it ended up two-and-a-half minutes longer. By this time the bass patch on the Monotribe (which has no patch memory) was long-since gone. I came close to replicating it, but it didn't have quite the edge of the original, so I used a mix of the original recording and the new.

Video (single edit):

Audio (album version):

96.1Mhz, an experimental 'atmosphere' was included on the e.p. to break up the two different versions of Isotopes Part 2. It consists of a recording of radio interference augmented by sound effects from the Korg Monotribe.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Slideshow: Rust And Bones

Now that I'm getting a handle on this whole video thing, I'm illustrating some older material and posting it on Youtube. First up is a mix of video and still images accompanying my ambient track 'Rust And Bones' from the 'Let's Build Mecha!' e.p.

It features photographs from two locations shot on my wanderings in 2012. Burnt and rusted car parts, and an entire car body with the twisted remains of a bicycle on top that had been torched like some Pagan effigy. The car in question has since been hauled away, so these photos serve as a document to its downfall.

Perhaps this presentation will give you a glimpse into what inspires my music and art.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Review: Electro Magnetic

Mark Barton has reviewed Electro Magnetic on his blog The Sunday Experience. Here's what he had to say about it:

Sounds so Kraftwerk that we half expected to find their name tags ironed upon its collar, new from the Manitou who regular readers with long memories may recall we mentioned in passing a little while back via tales from the attic volume XI I believe wherein he was going through something of a classic 60’s BBC Radiophonic Workshop Dr Who workout meets Vernon Arts Lab and John Carpenter via a rather fetching outing entitled ’the Mechanicals’. The Manitou for those not quite up to speed is the guise of British Columbian based electronic wizard Joshua Blanc who surrounded by all manner of analogue synths and vintage sound devices occasionally sees fit to issue forth sonic intermissions into the big outside world. ’electro magnetic’ be his latest salvo. In short this is the sound of the future as it was or at least sounded way back in those black and white days of ‘77 or more pertinently – are we really allowed to say this – a robotoid Dusseldorfian wet dream – I guess not – but too late its done. All at once finitely designed, meticulously engineered and powered onto a hyper chilled lunar mainframe which aside being just a tad frisky and fluent in the way of kraut kosmiche appears as though a mid 80’s Cabaret Voltaire were secretly fashioning out little man machined Karl Bartos replicants. ’nibiru’ on the other hand once whirred into view slow peels its coldly minimalist outer shell to assume some deeply technoid trimmed funky electro noodling much sculptured in the lounge lilted romantic cool coding of a mellowed Vangelis.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Digital Single: Electro Magnetic

Leading up to the release of my new album, I'll be releasing a series of free two-track singles. The first of these is Electro Magnetic/Nibiru. It will be available for free on my Bandcamp page until the next single is released (at least two weeks).

Bandcamp player:

Electro Magnetic was inspired by the knowledge that electromagnetic frequencies (EMFs) are buzzing around us almost constantly in our technological society. Far from being gloom-and-doom, however, Electro Magnetic is an upbeat electropop song with minimal vocals and a focus on synthesized percussion and electronic rhythms. I came up with the idea when I was walking in the woods, and recorded some hand-percussion into my digital recorder so I'd remember it. It was later re-created in the studio. The sounds were created on Novation K-Station and Roland HS-60. The Crumar Performer is also featured on the bridge, and the Boss DR-550 provided the tom-toms.

Video (single edit):

Audio (album version):

Nibiru began as a bass sequence on the Korg Monotribe. I recorded an improvisation of various filter and LFO tweaks as a single take and constructed the rest of the track around it. Also featured are the Roland HS-60, an arpeggio from the K-Station, and some Speak & Spell percussion samples. The title was inspired by a phantom sun purportedly hiding behind our own.



Also included is a single edit of Electro Magnetic, which omits the extended breakdown. It essentially follows the same structure as my original demo.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Cover Song: The Tick Tock Man

This year mark's the 30th Anniversary of Gary Numan's classic Warriors album. To celebrate, Numanme has put together the Warriors Tribute project, featuring fan covers of songs from the album. For my contribution I decided to cover a song called The Tick Tock Man. It's not my favourite from the album (that would be This Prison Moon), but it's a well-crafted and oft-overlooked tune I thought could do with some exposure.

For those of you not familiar with it, here's Gary Numan's 1983 original, courtesy of YouTube:

And here's my re-interpretation:

The bassline and a lot of the melodies were made with the Novation K-Station. Chords and pads are Roland HS60. There are some 'big 80s drums' courtesy of the Boss DR-550, some Speak & Spell percussion samples, and the rest of the percussion was synthesized from scratch. The Spring Thing Mks. II & III can be heard on the intro and outro, and the Crumar Performer provides some strings. I should also mention an Alesis SamplePad was used to record the tom-toms. I've not had a chance to write a post about that piece of equipment yet.

My good friend Jimmy Aaron sang the backing vocals, doing a good job of the parts originally sung by Tracey Ackerman. The rest of the vocals and the vocoder fell to me. This song isn't really in my key but I think I did a reasonable job.

Word is that the Warriors Tribute will be a professionally printed 2CD set limited to fifty copies. The contributing artists each get a copy and the remainder will go on ebay to cover the cost of manufacture. If you miss the opportunity to get hold of it, you can download my version of The Tick Tock Man from my SoundCloud page (for free, of course).

Thursday, August 15, 2013

DIY Instrument: Spring Thing Mk III

I've had this one in mind for a while, having collected various small springs and seen some interesting designs on the internet for similar devices. Mine is pretty low-tech, and the piezo pickup hums an awful lot, but I'm happy with how it turned out.

The housing, as you can see, is a Cadbury biscuit tin. Mounted on top are two small springs from bi-fold closet door hardware, the tension spring left over from building the Spring Thing Mk II, a spring from an engine block, and some cut-up pieces of old guitar strings (E and G). The latter are my favourite bits on this instrument. They have a pleasing twangy metallic tone.

The pickup is mounted beneath the lid and held in place by a 2" mending strip. It's wired directly to the 1/8" output jack that I threaded through a piece of plastic (from a compact disc jewel-case) before attaching it to the tin, to prevent it from shorting-out on the metal.

Friday, July 26, 2013

New Equipment: Sabian B8 Crash-Ride Cymbal

I'm back at work on the soundtrack I began producing in the winter of 2011. The script has been rewritten from the ground up and thus all my carefully-timed cues no longer fit the scenes. It was always my intention to extend the cues into album-length pieces, so it's not a huge deal. In fact I'd made a start last year, so it's now a case of finishing the process. I also had several new scenes to write cues for so it will now be a much longer 'record' when at last it sees the light of day.

Without going into details, the music is inspired by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop's science fiction output from the 60's. I'm using a lot of the same techniques to create it, but with modern tools. It occurred to me that the sound of cymbals, processed by various methods, would lend itself to the new material. Initially I was going to buy a crash cymbal, until I discovered the 'crash-ride.' It has a much longer decay than a regular crash, and can be played as a ride as well. I wanted the sound of both, so it worked out perfectly.

As well as using it in the conventional manner, I've done some close-micing experiments that yielded good results. Putting a microphone right at the edge picks up deep wobbly bass tones that are great for 'spacy' atmospheres. Playing it with rubber mallets produces a nice dark shimmery tone. The decay is indeed long. I wouldn't say that the 'crash' is particularly bright on this cymbal, but I've never owned one so I can only compare it to samples. This is also a used cymbal and has a degree of tarnish to it, which I'm told darkens the sound. It actually suits my work so I won't be polishing it.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Sample Pack: Yamaha PSS-130 rhythm loops

Cleaning up the studio a bit, I uncovered some old toy keyboards that I never use. It was my plan to fit the PSS-130 with a line-out jack so I could record it cleanly, but upon re-evaluation, I've decided to just sample it and let it go. The sounds/patches aren't all that impressive, but the electronic rhythms are worthy of archiving so I've recorded all 8 of them and edited them into loops. If, like me, you're into programming your own rhythms, these can easily be edited into their component sounds for loading into your sequencer of choice.

You can download the pack here on

Monday, July 1, 2013

DIY Instrument: Spring Thing MkII

I employ the sound of springs a lot in my music, particularly for my soundtrack work. To that end I've collected field recordings of many different-sized springs found on industrial and farm equipment. A few years ago I salvaged two springs from the door of a broken dishwasher, mounted them on a board and named the resulting contraption the 'Spring Thing.'

In my travels around the internet I found details of an instrument with much longer springs, played with a violin bow. This inspired me to attempt something similar, although mine is a far simpler in design. For this project I bought a zinc 'storm door' spring, which is used to keep screen doors closed against the weather. It's a half-inch wide and about a foot long unextended. Armed with this, a length of 1x2 pine, and some hooks and hardware, I set about creating the Spring Thing Mk II.

The storm door spring has a smaller spring threaded inside it for adjusting tension. The first order of business was to remove this, and after much trial and error I cut it out (along with a half-inch or so of the larger spring) with a Dremel cutting blade. At one end of the board I mounted a 2" hook, and at the other a 1/2" eye-hook. One end of the spring was threaded over the hook, then the free end was threaded with an S-hook and stretched toward the eye-hook with pliers. The S-hook made attaching the free end a lot easier, as the coils are exceedingly tight and difficult to thread anything into, so doing so while it's under tension would be nigh impossible.

I was able to stretch the spring to roughly twice its original length: not as much as I'd hoped for, but decent considering the strength of the spring. The lower end contacts the board and imparts some vibration to the wood. Because the opposite end is raised, there's room to mount a contact mic beneath the spring. I had good results about three-quarters of the way along. I've also done some sessions with two condenser microphones, one placed at either end. The sound of this spring is much brighter than the Mk I.

 The 'striker' seen in the pic is a chromed rod salvaged from a faucet set. Its intended use is to open and close a built-in basin stopper. It has a nice weight to it, with a hammer-like metal disk at one end and a smooth surface for scraping along the spring. It almost seems designed for the job!

Saturday, June 1, 2013

New Equipment: Boss DR-550 mkII Drum Machine

In advance of getting a drum pad MIDI controller, I purchased this MIDI-capable drum machine. The DR-550 is part of the 'Dr. Rhythm' line made by Roland under the Boss imprint. I own two earlier models, the DR-220A and 220B, so was already familiar with how these machines function. They're quite fun once you get used to their eccentricities. A lot of functions rely on holding down the shift button, for instance, when dedicated buttons would have been more intuitive.

The original DR-550 was manufactured in 1986. I haven't been able to confirm when the mkII came out. The drum kit in the mkII was expanded to 91 sounds from about half that. Among these sounds are some fantastic 'big 80's drums' that I'm sure were a big selling point in 1986. It also contains 10 sounds sampled from the famous Roland TR-808, which is perhaps more of a selling point in 2013.

I've found that the internal timing clock is slightly faster than that in my DAW (it's a similar story with the Alesis SR-16). After much trial and error I was able to sync it via MIDI, but it's still not 100%. I found that letting the sequence run and using the second bar instead of the first seems to work best.

To hear what the DR-550 sounds like, I recommend checking out this page at Cyborg Studio* where you can preview the kit from the unexpanded machine, and also purchase the sample pack if you desire. *Please note I'm in no way affiliated with Cyborg Studio, but I think their site is pretty cool.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Sample Pack: Merlin Electronic Game

Photo courtesy: the internets.

While searching the local re-use centre for electronic goodies a couple of weeks ago I spotted a cool retro-looking box with a hand-held game on the cover. In wonderful space-age chrome lettering on the side was the word 'Merlin.' "6 electronic games," the box proclaimed,  "vocabulary of space age sounds," "powerful computer brain." The game itself still resided inside, and though a little battered, it looked to be in working order. So for the princely sum of 25 cents it was mine.

I knew of this game, but had never played it. It was made by Parker Bros. in 1978 (a year before I was born). It's actually quite fun, but more importantly it makes some wonderfully retro bleep sounds. I've created a sample pack containing all these sounds, recorded direct from the speaker using my CAD GXL1200 through an ART USB preamp. The pack is hosted on and is 100% royalty free.

One further note: although I made sure to use fresh batteries when making the recording, I realised afterward that Merlin is out-of-tune by approximately three semitones. Thus the tone 'do,' which should be a C, is closer to an A. This being the digital age, it can easily be corrected if you plan on using the sounds musically.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Studio Project: Slinky & Contact Mic

One of my current projects called for some experimentation with a miniature Slinky spring. For years it's been part of a lo-fi spring reverb that I built, which never worked very well (it needed a preamp). A friend of mine once told me he'd hooked a spring up to a contact microphone, and that's what gave me the idea to try it with the Slinky. So, a few minutes with some rubber bands, two microphone stands, some painter's tape, and a buffered contact microphone et voila:

I hooked it up to my ART USB dual preamp, but found better results with the Arctic MC6002 mixer. I filmed some short clips using both setups so you can hear the difference:

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Review: The Mechanicals

My e.p. 'The Mechanicals' has been reviewed by Mark Barton in Tales From The Attic Volume XI. His missive is a regular feature in the independent music and culture webzine God Is In The TV. Here's what he had to say about it:

Somewhere here after a casual rifling through cyberspace we happened across this little curio. A soundtrack no less for ‘the mechanicals’ story distributed by broken sea audio recorded and composed by the Manitou better known to kith and kin as British Columbia based musician Joshua M Blanc. Classic BBC Radiophonic Workshop fair is what you get for your time and due diligence albeit updated and eyed from a mid 90‘s Warp-esque minimalist craft, a perfect companion for those of you who managed to nab yourselves a copy of Ochre’s very excellent ’music from the tenth planet’ set from a few years back and I dare say that very excellent ’the séance at hobs lane’ outing from mount Vernon arts lab. Steeled in chilled atmospherics that creep with a tension seeped carnival-esque sense of the sinister, there’s a playful fondness for that old school hide behind the settee flavouring seeping out of these cosmic fairground sounds as though an Orbital c. ‘the box‘ and latter career Add N to X had been re-visioned by Raymond Scott whilst peeking through the eyes of the Barron‘s especially on the opening ‘the mechanicals – part 1‘. Etched in sparseness and couched in hymnal chorals ice chipped in detachment ’part 2’ is hollowed with the same analogue artistry as befitted the work of landscape whilst ’insufficient data’ is detailed with an ominously spectral wood folk chill factor that imagines Philippe Petit located in some servile mechanoid nightmare dosed up on a claustrophobic soundscape icily chimed to a meeting of Carpenter and Goldsmith minds. Creepily cool in short.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Software Review: TAL U-NO-LX

Having a hands-on approach to sound design, it's not often I call upon VSTs (virtual instruments) to create sounds. I prefer VSTs that emulate instruments impractical (or impossible) to fit in my home studio: piano, orchestra, medieval instruments, etc.... To a lesser degree, I sometimes use emulations of classic synthesizers that are frightfully rare and/or expensive. But regardless of how good they might sound, the fact remains that the controls are on the computer screen and I don't enjoy working that way.

That isn't to say a sound can be created more quickly on a hardware synthesizer, especially if it's a complex one and the synthesizer offers a vast array of sound-shaping controls. But the process is more enjoyable to me if I can physically turn a knob or push a slider rather than fumble with a mouse pointer. When a hardware synthesizer is relatively simple, well laid-out, and easy to use, and it's virtual counterpart is all of these as well, then it's cause for celebration.

You may recall I rescued a Roland HS-60/Juno 106S from a thrift shop last year (see this post). It's since become one of my favourite synths thanks to its sound and ease of use. It's by no means perfect: it has some quirks due to its age and mis-use by its former owner. I can work around them, and so far it's behaved well for all the use its got. But, as with any piece of vintage hardware, I can foresee a time when it will need repairs that are beyond my skills to affect. Furthermore, it weighs as much as a small planet, so it's not what you'd call portable! This is where VSTs have an edge.

Enter: TAL software's U-NO-LX, an emulation of the Juno 60: the predecessor to the Juno 106. Not a lot changed between the two models. There are a few differences in the controls, but the basic architecture and sound are much the same. The biggest difference appears to be the loss of the arpeggiator in favour of MIDI control. I suspect Roland thought MIDI was such a big deal that they didn't spend much time 'improving' the layout and circuit-design (they saved that for the follow-up, the Alpha Juno - more about that in a future post).

In essence, you can craft many of the same sounds with both synthesizers, and theoretically, with the U-NO-LX software. I'll leave in-depth sound comparisons to those more qualified. Suffice to say, that the U-NO-LX sounds close enough to my 106 to make no difference. Instead, I'm going to focus on a couple of points I've not seen covered in other reviews of this VST.

The TAL website states: it's not possible to save presets in demo mode. This is the only limitation of the free version of the software, but it's also more limiting than you might imagine. You may think, as I did, that you'd be able to create your patches from scratch and the settings would be saved as part of the project in your DAW. Not so: upon reloading your song you'll find the U-NO-LX reset to the basic start-up patch. The free version is only useful if you directly record the audio output, or use it in a live setting. That said, you do get to experience the 'full monty' without any annoying time restrictions or bleeps - unless they're bleeps you've coaxed out of it yourself.

Secondly, for a fairly simple synthesizer, it does hog a lot of CPU. My system, an Intel dual-core 2.4ghz with 4gb of RAM and Windows XP, is perhaps not the optimum environment for VSTs in general, but it holds up capably with most. Two instances of U-NO-LX running at once is about the maximum my setup can handle. Sonar, my DAW, relies on DXI (direct-x) technology so I have to convert any native VSTi's using a program called Cakewalk VST Adapter. I'm not sure how much of the strain, if any, can be attributed to this.

Despite this issue, I think it's a well-designed VST, modelled with due attention to detail. You even get the Juno 60's arpeggiator, which can be synced to your project's tempo, if you wish - and I do! As of this writing, the full version is $40 USD. I found the process of paying for it trouble-free and had my activation code within seconds of the transfer. Considering that a Juno 106 sells for upwards of $600 these days, and a Juno 60 even more, I think that's an exceptional deal. I find programming it as easy and enjoyable as programming my HS-60 (well, maybe not quite!) and have the peace of mind that if ever my beloved hardware fails me, I won't be bereft of its distinctive sound.

Monday, January 28, 2013

The Mechanicals: Technical Commentary

Here's some technical commentary on the tracks from The Mechanicals e.p.:

The Mechanicals (Part 1)
Written to accompany a scene in a devastated spaceship. I started with the percussion: a hand-clap recorded in an old concrete loading bay (see this post) and a piece of 2.5" steel pipe being struck. The former was pitch-shifted an octave lower. Some minimal piano added bass to the track, and from there I added several layers of synthesizer. The bulk of the sounds were created on the Novation K-Station and feature two oscillators ring-modulated against each other. This is best illustrated by the deep bass sound with a wobble to it, and some of the sounds on the bridge section. The K-Station is also responsible for the white-noise percussion elements. A second bass sound, with a delay effect, was provided by the Arturia Minimoog V. The string sound with the rising attack and slow decay was made on the Roland HS-60, which seems well-suited to producing this kind of sound. The rest of the robotic and percussive sounds are sampled from a modified VTech Talking Whiz Kid, and modified PSS-140 keyboard. This kind of minimal electronic piece was something of a departure for me, and I'd like to write more in this vein.

The Mechanicals (Part 2)

I took an aborted bridge section from Part 1, built on it, and this is the result. I also wanted to illustrate the mechanicals concept lyrically. Since I didn't have to worry about clashing with dialogue, I filled up a lot more space in the mix. The Minimoog V makes a return, playing a different melody, and the K-Station provides most of the other synthesizer parts, including bass and lead sounds. The HS-60 adds a much subtler string sound: the best place to hear it is during the first break, accompanying the choir. EastWest Orchestra provides the choir, backing up three layers of my own voice saturated with reverb. My vocals on the verses are both raw and fed through the K-Station's vocoder. Singing backup is the AnalogX SayIt speech synthesizer, both untreated and fed through a granular plugin called Tweakbench Pudding. On the bridge section are several layers of my voice through the Roland SP-404's ring modulator effect. Modified Speak & Spell and Talking Whiz Kid samples can be heard as percussion and melodic elements throughout. As I wrote this 'on spec,' I was very pleased that parts of it were used in Stevie's Doctor Who production.

Insufficient Data
Written to accompany a scene in an abandoned technological structure on an alien planet. My initial concept was to base the track around humming electricity. To that end, I created a sound on the HS-60 not unlike the 60hz hum made by unshielded equipment plugged into 110volt mains voltage. Several attempts were made to find a suitable accompanying melody before the three-note piano motif and square-wave answering melody (courtesy of the K-Station) presented themselves. I intended to keep the track minimal, but during a percussion session in Fruity Loops I threw all sorts of rhythm elements into the mix that changed the whole feel of the track. These were mostly sourced from the modified Speak & Spell. A few Whiz Kid samples provide some eerie atmosphere on the intro, which I liken to the sounds of ages-old computers running forgotten programs for untold millenia. The timpani/kettle drum is from EastWest Orchestra, and the bass drum (with reverse reverb) is an old staple created on the K-Station. This ended up even more 'outside the box' than Mechanicals Part 1, and I'm very happy with it.

The Mechanicals (Part 2) [End Of The World Mix]

My friend Jimmy 'Jamz' Aaron sent me a rough remix of Mechanicals Part 2 he made by setting it to a new drum and rhythm track. This prompted a collaboration to produce it properly. I took out a lot of the original parts to give his heavier percussion more space. On the 21st of December (Apocalypse Day) I was inspired to add some entirely new synthesizer parts. The repeating melody that comes in under the verse was the first. It clashed somewhat with the original lead line, so I dropped the latter completely. In one of those serendipitous moments, a new lead presented itself and gelled immediately. Some resonant stabs from the HS-60 and some extra percussion elements from Jimmy's camp finished the track off. The entire remix was completed in four days, and both of us were thrilled with the result.