How to Process and Record a Bended Instrument - EMusician

How to Process and Record a Bended Instrument

It’s always more fun to abuse things instead of using them as expected: Just think of the Who smashing their instruments, stock car races, rap guys with TR-808s, or beating the crap out of tape to make it distort. So it’s not surprising there are some phunkee, crazee music nerds who are modifying electronic toys and cheap instruments in a kind of babaric way: The more the object of their desire gets tortured, and the more extreme the transformation from toy/trash to a piece of art and noise machine — the better. Welcome to the world of circuit bending.
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But bending is also a philosophy that has a lot to do with recording. Think of those amazing analog effects from the ’60s, when engineers used Variacs and power amps to create flanging with multitrack recorders — sometimes burning up a motor in the process. Some people think that in this digital age, you can’t really do those kinds of crazy things any more. But you can!

Bended toys and techniques don’t have to sound “good;” they have to excite and surprise people with unknown functions, sounds, and looks. When a talking Barbie doll becomes an ambient synthesizer, a Fisher-Price music toy morphs into an industrial noise generator, or a Suzuki Omnichord is reborn as a heavy metal weapon, that’s “bending.” Almost everyone can do it; worst case, you destroy the machine/toy. And even then, you still can use the parts for bending the next one.

You can carry the bending philosophy to effects, whether recording bended or even traditional instruments. If you haven’t discovered what cheap effects and pedals can do to any recorded sound, dive in — and bended instruments are a good place to start, as they mate well with weird effects.

For example, if your bended instrument has an internal speaker, use it. You can record the direct out and the internal speaker via a mic on two different channels. Try extreme left and right positions in the mixdown, and totally different EQ settings on the two channels. The EQs should feature the two characters of the channels: The direct out signal will be more “solid,” clean, and will contain more bass frequencies. The internal speaker signal will be more nasty/distorted, and contain much more high mids than the direct out.

To make this stereo effect for recordings even more funky, change the stereo positions of these two signals by panning on the beat. You can do this via hardware autopanners like the ones from SPL and the built-in functions of signal processors like the Yamaha SPX90, Roland RSP-550, and similar devices . . . or use autopanning plug-ins, or panning envelopes, in your host software.

FUN WITH EFFECTS

With the above scenario, one of my favorite setups is a guitar multieffects with distortion, compression, and short delay on the mic channel, and a warm, long dub delay on the direct out channel. Some mad effects I always use on my bended instruments that can also make amazing sounds with just about anything are:

Electro-Harmonix Memory Man Deluxe
This brings some warm, “dubby” flair into the sound . . . Jamaica here we come! Also great: The Line 6 Analog Delay Modeler, Boss Analog Delay, and the Danelectro Vintage Delay Pedal.

Zoom PFX-9003 Multieffect
This small guitar multieffect processor (Figure 1) has insane delay, distortion, reverb, and flange effects. I stuck it on the top of a bended Casio keyboard with gaffer’s tape . . . looks cool, sounds great.

Electro-Harmonix Loop Player 2880
This effect is “killer” to jam with yourself for hours and hours. You play an atmospheric sound and loop it, then play some crazy click ’n’ cuts sounds, and loop them. Then play a solo noise/melody on top, and so on. You can create an entire CD with a good looper and one or two bended instruments. Other good loop players are the DigiTech Jamman and Boss Looper. You also could build your own looping tool in Native Instruments’ Reaktor, but I prefer easy, low tech solutions for bended instruments. Remember the equation: (lots of knobs) + (lots of buttons) = lots of fun.

Alesis Ineko
This is a crazy experimental multieffect that they don’t make anymore. It joins the Alesis Bitrman (Figure 2), a bit reducer that generates a very rough and nasty low tech sound, in the Alesis Hall of Fame of Discontinued But Wonderful Stuff.

Low tech reverb effects
Check your local flea market or Internet auction site for small reverb pedals. There are cool pedals from Boss, E-H, Ibanez, Marshall, and many other companies. I’ve found several for $10–$35. Ironically, they can make sounds that even expensive reverb processors can’t make.

Guitar synth effects
The Electro-Harmonix Microsynth or Hog, Korg X911, Boss Bass Synth, and the like try to create a parallel signal to fatten the incoming sound; but as a bended instrument mostly produces crazy noise, the synth effect pedals will freak out because they don’t “know” how to handle these signals.

Subharmonic synths/octave divider
There are a couple of older pedals from Boss, Ibanez, MXR, Paia, and the like that add a sub-bass component to the incoming signal. If the bended instrument signal is clean, you will get a more powerful sound; if your instrument makes insane noise, the octave pedals will also freak and make your sound even crazier.

Parallel effects
There are little boxes for guitarists and bassists that split the incoming signal so that the input provides 4–8 output signals. This lets you feed the signal from your bended instrument into multiple effects at the same time, which can make your instrument sound like a whole orchestra of psychedelic noise.

CONGRATULATIONS: YOU’VE MADE AN INSTRUMENT!

Whenever I find the “perfect” set up for an bended instrument, I stick everything together with gaffer’s tape in a dedicated case, together with other crazy stuff. This is because I always take some bended instruments on my tours; I don’t like rewiring my setup for every gig, and I can bring the whole mess into the studio, no problems. Once you’ve found a perfect setup, you need to learn how to perform on this instrument! All boxes, toys, wires, and pedals are together now as one instrument — your individual unique instrument, which needs special treatment and training. As always when you start to learn a new instrument, don’t expect to be a virtuoso performer after one day: Learn all the wonderful little details that make the difference between a knob tweaker and a performer. Go to ambient bars, experimental music festivals, and bending meetings. Show others what you’re doing, and exchange bending tricks and hints. Help make this unique method of music creation, art, and performing more popular . . . and if you come visit us at Liquid Sky Crete, I’ll buy you a beer for your efforts!

Dr. Walker has been involved in more than 700 record productions, movie soundtracks, and remixes, and performed in over 1,000 concerts all over the world. He’s lived on the island of Crete since 2005, where he runs an artist hotel and ambient bar. Info: www.dr-walker.com and www.myspace.com/dr_walker.