Berocca Aluminum Tube Kazoo

It’s true: You can create musical instruments out of garbage. Being inspired by Frank Zappa as well as the Landfillharmonic, I decided to go create an improvised instrument and improvise some solo quasi-trumpet garbage jazz on it.

I’ve been taking Berocca (the fizzy vitamin tablets) for the past three weeks now as supplements. As a result, I have these leftover aluminum tubes. I thought that perhaps I can turn these tubes  into musical instruments so I made a kazoo with one of them. I cut out the other end of the tube, place some kind of wax paper membrane on the other end, secured it with a hair tie, and voila I got myself a kazoo. I wanted to know how it sounded like  so I filmed myself. It sounds okay to me and I think it would be useful in various musical creations. At the very least, I can grab the attention of my cats with it. It’s either the cats love it or it emits certain sound frequencies that they themselves can only hear so well that it’s annoying.


Modes Made Somewhat Easy

One of the things that make many musicians scratch their heads are the modes. Let’s face it: They are so confusing yet in fact you need to learn and understand how to use them if you want to improve your musical skills and knowledge. We always hear how to use the modes in everything from writing songs to soloing over a complex jazz piece. In this piece, I’m going to show a couple of ways regarding how to understand modes.

Now, for us to understand this tutorial, we need to know what a major scale is and the names of the modes. Since we have seven notes in the major scale, we also get seven modes.

The Major Scale and it’s Relative Modes

Relative Modes_0001

We have this nice graphic above that shows our C major scale and its relative modes. We can easily play the each of the major scale’s relative modes by starting the same major scale at a different note and then we name the mode according to that starting mode. For example, if I want to play D Dorian, I just play the C major scale a.k.a. Ionian mode starting at D as a root. Sound-wise, you will notice that by starting the same scale at a different note, you rearrange the order of intervals. Add to the fact that you now consider the different note as the root note, you will tend to return to it every now and then, making you hear a scale that is very different from your original major scale.

And so, to figure out…

…the Ionian mode, we start our major scale at the 1st note (it’s just the same major scale, duh!) (I).

…the relative Dorian mode, we start our major scale at the 2nd note (ii).

…the relative Phrygian mode, we start our major scale at the 3rd note (iii).

…the relative Lydian mode, we start our major scale at the 4th note (IV).

…the relative Mixolydian mode, we start our major scale at the 5th note (V).

…the relative Aeolian mode, we start our major scale at the 6th note (this also happens to be our relative minor scale) (vi).

…the relative Locrian mode, we start our major scale at the 7th  note (vii).

Easy, right?

Figuring out the Parallel Modes

Parallel Modes_0002

Figuring out how to learn and play the parallel modes (e.g. C major, C locrian, C Phrygian, etc.) is a trickier thing. There are a number of ways to do it. The technical way is to analyze our relative modes, check the order of intervals, and then apply that order of intervals to a particular root note. For example, I know that the Ionian mode/major scale follows the order of whole step (W)-W-half step (H)-W-W-W-H pattern of intervals. By looking at, say for example our E Phrygian in our relative modes section, we find out that the pattern is now H-W-W-W-H-W-W with a flat 2nd. So, let’s say I want to know what Bb Phrygian is, I figured out that it is Bb-Cb-Db-Eb-F-Gb-Ab. I can do the same procedure for the other modes. Quite taxing, isn’t it?

What if we put it this way instead? We can categorize each mode as major (if it has a major 3rd) or minor (if it has a minor 3rd). By figuring out the formula for each mode, I now have this shortcut:

Major modes = Ionian, Lydian, Mixolydian

Minor modes = Dorian, Phrygian, Aeolian, Locrian

All I have to do next is figure out which interval is different from that of our standard major and minor scale. Now, let’s assume that we already know that the major scale (Ionian) has a major 2nd, major 3rd, perfect 4th, perfect 5th, major 6th, and major 7th. Let’s also assume that we know our natural minor scale (Aeolian) as having a major 2nd, minor 3rd, perfect 4th, perfect 5th, minor 6th, and minor 7th. It’s time for us now to figure out how our other modes are built:

Dorian = Minor scale with major 6th instead of minor 6th

Phrygian = Minor scale with minor 2nd instead of major 2nd

Lydian = Major scale with augmented 4th instead of perfect 4th

Mixolydian = Major scale with minor 7th instead of major 7th

Locrian = Minor scale with with minor 2nd and diminished 5th

Still too difficult to figure out by this method? Okay, by doing it this way, it does involve some time to study. However there are easier ways.

We can use the relative mode order in order to figure out how to play a mode correctly. All you have to do is know what order does a particular mode appear to know the sequence order of the root note of that particular mode in a particular major scale. Confusing, right? Here’s a concrete example:

Let’s say that I want to play a D Mixolydian.  Now, from the study of relative modes, I know that Mixolydian is the 5th mode and so its root note is the 5th note of a particular major scale, which I find out to be G in this case. And so, all I have to do play D Mixolydian is play the G major scale but start with the D.

Let’s also say that I want to play Ab Phrygian instead. Since Phrygian is the third mode, Ab is the third note of the Fb major scale. Now, you might say, “What the hell, Mark! There’s no such thing as Fb major.” Relax, I’ll explain it for you. From a strictly music theory standpoint, there is. But for the sake of practical use, it is just the E major scale, and so now we think of Ab as G# and then play the E major scale starting at G# to get ourselves the Ab Phrygian mode. I think that this is the simplest way of learning and playing the modes.

As for actual use in songwriting, composition, and soloing using modes, there are plenty of resources on the web for that. Anyway, you can always drop a line or two at the comments box if you have questions regarding modes and other stuff. Thanks.

Some Musings on Education, Creativity, and Music

I have always believed that there is something miserably wrong with education, especially here in the Philippines. Growing up, I had to go to school every day, wear my uniform, pin my ID in a very specific manner, and keep a hairstyle exactly as described in the student handbook for discipline. The one thing that baffled me was why did I have to look like everybody else in order for me to have a good education? Does that exercise in conformity lead to anything beneficial? I have always thought that the answer was no. I have always thought that such rules were of no value and they only contributed to a superficial sense of order and discipline. A prescribed haircut never contributes to knowledge within my head or the life skills that I should possess. Matter of fact was it even encouraged me to rebel, seeing how utterly useless such rules were. Looking at the bigger picture of things, it seemed to me that schools (yes, even private ones with expensive tuition fees) are hell bent on producing “cookies”, mass producing students who eventually become part of a grand industrial assembly line. This cookie-cutter-style education, as Sir Ken Robinson puts it, kills creativity.

I can remember how many times I’ve heard something like I should be this or I should be that. It can become really frustrating because many people try to put you in a mold where you don’t really fit. I’m guessing all would agree that with the exception of art schools, the arts (music included) are of a low hierarchal standing in many educational systems. It’s good that we do have to place good regard for math, the sciences, and language studies, but shouldn’t we put the arts in equal footing? It’s really sad to see in this part of the world where I live that music is lumped together with other arts and physical education into a single subject. It’s just wrong! What happens in the end really is that these schools produce students who have some semblance of athletic ability, standard curriculum knowledge, zero knowledge about and appreciation for art, and almost nothing about music except some form of dancing to it and barely carrying out a tune. It really is sad given that one of the primary ways of learning is through listening, the primary sense that music appeals to. By lumping all of the arts into a single subject called MAPE and then placing it at a category lower than all other subjects, the present education system in the part of the world where I live is indeed killing creativity.

One thing that I have to say, however, is that in order to translate creative ideas into tangible output, discipline still is necessary. I remember my classical piano training in that regard: I would have to say (without any offense to my wonderful piano teacher) that it is the farthest anyone can go from exercising creativity in terms of music. It’s the kind of training that expects you to become as accurate as a MIDI player, and unfortunately I don’t seem to be very good at it. You have to follow the whims of the composer almost 100% of the time. One thing I would appreciate about it, however, is that it builds the skills that are necessary for me to be able to execute or communicate to others my own musical ideas without needing the assistance of a performer. Even something as free-spirited as jazz or the Blues requires knowing how to play a pentatonic scale. While the creative impulse has to be fed, it still requires discipline to execute properly.

The discipline we get out of schools is much appreciated, but if we lose touch of any attempts to become creative then such discipline is worthless study. The discipline and order we get out of education should go hand-in-hand with exercises in creativity, and therefore education shouldn’t be a lopsided affair where we push math, science, and linguistic studies to the top and regard music, dancing, painting, sculpture, etc. as mere extracurricular activities. It is true that you cannot produce creative output without the means to execute it. It is also true that without any semblance of creativity, all those means of execution obtained from rigorous discipline is unusable.

Using the Five Most Important Synthesizer Modules

Good day. This is Mark Galang with another post about music production in compliance with the requirements for the Berklee College of Music course called “Introduction to Music Production”, hosted for free by Coursera. In this post, I will discuss how to use the five most important synthesizer modules. These are your oscillator, filter, amplifier, envelope, and low frequency oscillator or LFO. For this tutorial, I will be using three kinds of software synthesizers namely RGC Audio’s Z3ta +1, MinimogueVA, and Mothman 1966. We can also consider this tutorial as a sort of crash course into subtractive synthesis.

1. Oscillator

In any synthesizer (even those that play back samples), the oscillator is the sound source. It produces the waveform/s that you need to shape to produce the desired sound. The most basic parameter we get to control in an oscillator is the waveform selection. We usually have a number of waveforms to choose from including sine (fundamental frequency only), pulse waves such as square and triangle (fundamental frequency + odd harmonics), and sawtooth waves (fundamental + odd and even harmonics).

In the Mothman 1966, three waveforms are available called diamond (triangle), 8-bit saw (sawtooth), and wind (sine):

01a - Mothman 1966 Osc

The MinimogueVA (obviously modeled after the Minimoog) has a couple more parameters other than standard waveform selection. You can adjust the tuning and the register of the oscillator as well as apply an overdrive (distortion) effect.

01b - MinimogueVA Osc

The Z3ta is the most complex of these softsynths. Its oscillator section has more choices for waveforms along with more parameters to shape them. There is even an option available for users to draw their own custom waveforms.

01c - Z3ta Osc

2. Voltage Controlled Filter (VCF)

More complex waveforms such as sawtooth can often sound harsh, and this is why a filter (more properly called voltage controlled filter or VCF) is present in all synthesizers. The filter functions much like an EQ except that in synthesizers, we can expect its parameters to change over a short period of time. The most common kind of filter in a synthesizer is a low-pass filter, the rationale being it is the best filter for cutting out brightness or harshness in the fastest way possible. In a synthesizer, the cutoff parameter is probably the most important. In a typical low-pass filter, raising the knob or slider for cutoff will raise the cutoff frequency meaning that you cut off less of the high frequencies and make the sound brighter. Lowering the cutoff knob will cut more high frequencies, making the sound of your oscillator darker.

One of the fun things about using these synthesizers is when you are modulating the filter’s cutoff, either manually or through an LFO. Sometimes you may want the realtime use of the filter cutoff to be more obvious. This is where the resonance parameter can be very useful. Increasing the resonance will make your use of the filter more pronounced. When the resonance parameter is up to a particular level, some of the high frequencies seep through as you turn the cutoff knob or slider to either direction.

The Mothman’s VCF features the basic control parameters:

02a - Mothman 1966 VCF

In the MinimogueVA, the filter’s resonance is aptly called emphasis. Contour Amount adjusts the Q of the filter and velocity adjusts how fast the cutoff knob responds:

02b - MinimogueVA VCF

The Z3ta’s filter can be changed from the standard low-pass to others such as notch, band pass, and high pass:

02c - Z3ta VCF

3. Amplifier

The synthesizer’s amplifier works by raising the amplitude of the signal coming from the oscillator after it passes through the filter. The most basic control over the amplifier is the master volume section of the synthesizer as shown in all three featured synthesizers:

03b - Mothman 1966 VCA

03a - MinimogueVA VCA

03c - Z3ta VCA

However, we can also have more specific control over the amplifier, allowing us to shape how each note is articulated. This is where we make use of the…

4. Envelope

The envelope is one component of the amplifier that adjusts the amplitude of the sound at certain points over a very short amount of time. The amplifier’s envelope has four parameters:

Attack Time – The amount of time it takes for the signal to reach peak amplitude after a note on command (i.e. pressing a key).

Decay Time – The amount of time it takes for the signal to reach the designated sustain level.

Sustain Level – A designated amplitude level during the main sequence of the sound’s duration. The level of the sound after decay time has passed.

Release Time – The amount of time it takes for the sound to go from sustain level to zero after a note off command.

These parameters spell out conveniently as the acronym ADSR.

By adjusting these parameters, we can emulate the responses of various instruments such as the organ, violin, brass, piano, etc. For example, the organ has a “switch” type of envelope, and so we would set attack to 0, decay to 0, sustain level to any amount desired, and release to 0. If we want the synthesizer to have a piano-like response where the note dies off slowly after pressing a key, we set attack to 0, have a long decay time of about a few seconds, and then set sustain level and release time to 0. If we want the sound to “swell”, we set the attack time above 0.

The amplitude envelope generator is pretty much standard in all three featured synths, although the MinimogueVA has got envelope controls for filter as well and the Z3ta has additional parameters beyond the traditional ADSR:

04a - Mothman 1966 Envelope

04b - MinimogueVA Envelope

04c - Z3ta Envelope

5. Low Frequency Oscillator (LFO)

Other than willfully adjusting all the parameters of our synthesizers with our hands, you can assign an LFO to do this for you in a cyclical manner. An LFO typically operates at a frequency below the threshold of hearing, typically at a repetitive pattern determined by the kind of waveform used and the rate at which the LFO operates.

We can use the LFO to have control over the oscillator for vibrato effects, the amplifier for tremolo effects, and the filter for automatic filter sweeps.

The Mothman’s LFO can be assigned to the oscillator or filter. You can select the waveform as well as adjust its speed.

05a - Mothman 1966 LFO

For the MinimogueVA, the third oscillator (OSC3) can be used as an LFO and can be assigned to various parameters:

05b - MinimogueVA LFO

As for the Z3ta, we can make use of the modulation matrix to route the LFO to control the other components of the synth ranging from the oscillator to the main volume control:

05c - Z3ta LFO

And so this ends a rather lengthy discussion about the five most important modules of any synthesizer.

It took me quite a while to write this tutorial but I think I could improve on this tutorial through video and audio examples. As of this time, I’m not capable of capturing video for a demonstration. If time permits, I will record some audio examples that demonstrate the functions of each synthesizer module.

Memories of ROTC: A Big Waste of Time

I remember being a college kid once and also recall that much of the time I spent in the University of Santo Tomas was a big waste of time. One of the largest contributors to time wastage was a Sunday requirement called ROTC.

ROTC, short for Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, was a mandatory course when I was enrolled in the University. This was around 1997 so much has changed since then (especially after the Mark Welson Chua murder case). For two years, I had to wake up early Sunday mornings to get dressed in shabby military garb and run to USTs field for “training” regarding military discipline. What I did find out was it only took what could have been fruitful years of my life.

All 1st and 2nd year male students of the University were required to attend approximately 12 Sundays per academic semester. A relatively select few become involved in special units while the rest of us were treated like crap. And like crap, all that we learned was to stand up and sit down under the heat of the sun or the occasional drizzle of rain. For 12 Sundays a semester, our routine was to stand up, sit down, march around a little bit, buy crappy food, and (if we’re lucky, that is) be taught some ceremonial gun wielding. Combat skills learned: ZERO. Some military training huh? This is the “Bahala Na” (let chance take over), “Pwede Na” (that’ll do) mediocrity cultural  mentality at work.

ROTC’s intention was to supplement the military with pawns in case the Philippines was involved in a major war. It has that high and mighty aspiration that given the chance, you’ll be called out to fight for your country, be a hero and all that crap that politicians want you to believe. But what good does standing and sitting all day do to train good soldiers? We occasionally had calisthenic exercises for that matter but in my experience, I had not learned to handle a rifle in a combat situation during the time I spent at the ROTC. I have years of experience training in martial arts so I definitely know what it takes to train a warrior; ROTC in the Philippines wouldn’t compare to that. I have relatives serving in the Philippine Navy, and based on their stories about real military training, the kind of thing they hand out in ROTC is a big load of bull. In a real wartime situation, those drafted from the ROTC would be nothing more than mere human shields. This is what taking MS11 and MS12 (the subject code for Military Science) has taught me. Now you tell me if that isn’t a waste of time.

Fast forward to 1998 and I enrolled for MS21 and MS22. This time, I had the option of going for alternative units. Since I couldn’t get a slot to go for a unit called CWS, who were required to provide civil service for only 6 Sundays a semester, I was eventually placed in LES (Law Enforcement Service). This unit aims to teach students some things regarding being in law enforcement in the Philippines. Like the last year, I learned nothing.

So, what did we actually do in LES? Sit and lie down on the asphalt, have an energy drink, maybe a cup of taho (it’s watery silken tofu with caramel and tapioca pearls) and smoke our lungs out to oblivion. Did learn any facet of police work. Nuh uh! I did this for 24 Sundays of that year, but because the ROTC screwed up my records for MS22, I didn’t get a passing mark. So much for attendance.

Not passing MS22 gave me something to worry about during my later years in college as I would not be able to graduate without it. It’s a good thing though that when I was about to graduate, the policy was changed to what’s called the National Service Training Program (NSTP) which only required a year to complete. As a result of that policy revision, since I was “officially” able to complete more than a year’s equivalent of NSTP, I no longer had to pursue finishing MS22. My cousin wasn’t so lucky though as he had to complete his program in Fort Bonifacio prior to the implementation of NSTP.

So now that I’m a parent, I would make sure that my son, when he approaches that age, would not have to waste his time on such an utterly useless program. Might as well he go the CWS route to complete his requirements, but that would be in the next 8 years or so. A lot of things might change and so I’ll have to wait and see. Again, the bottom line is that in my experience, ROTC is a waste of time.

The Work-at-Home Homeschooling Dad

In this day and age, the Internet has made it possible for many people to work at home. Perhaps there already are a lot of people who know about the work-at-home mom. As a matter of fact, you’d get a lot of results for articles, job openings, opportunities and the like if you Google the term “work-at-home mom”. However, I’m in the opinion that the work-at-home dad is a less popular topic than a work-at-home mom, so I’m going to share you what a work-at-home dad is like.

In paternalistic, masculine, machismo cultures like the Philippines and Latin America, the concept of a work-at-home dad isn’t so macho at all. It effectively undermines macho tradition where the wife stays at home to do all that domestic stuff and the husband goes off out into the world doing all sorts of macho stuff, and that includes earning money. In a work-at-home-dad situation, I act as an entire office staff rolled into one person with parenting and other domestic responsibilities. If you think the work-at-home situation is as easy as slumping on the couch drinking beer and watching TV, you sure got it all wrong.

The concept can be best explained by illustrating to you dear reader my typical day. I wake up at 4 a.m. to feed the cats, wake up my son, and then go drive off to pick up my wife who’s working for a call center. I then drive home with my wife and son. As soon as we arrive home, I prepare breakfast, send my wife off to bed, and then eat the breakfast of champions with my son. After breakfast, I prepare for work while my son starts his going through his homeschool materials. I set up all my equipment, check messages, check my son’s progress every now and then, check the stay-out household help’s progress, and then start writing or transcribing music or whatever freelance job I got off or on the Internet. As soon as 11 o’clock hits, I then prepare lunch and have a meal with my son.

When lunchtime is over, I, the work-at-home-dad starts washing the dishes and and then start preparing my wife’s “breakfast”. The afternoon also involves going back to composing music or whatever freelance job I got and my son going back to his schoolwork. From time to time, I would check on my son’s progress. This also involves some verbal prompting on my part if I notice my son slacking off (which can be very stressful at times). There also are occasions when I have to check and grade test papers and do all of the administrative work involved in homeschooling.

As soon as my wife wakes up, I would offer her “breakfast” if I have prepared something. If I haven’t cooked up anything for her, we would then eat out just before I drive her to the bus stop where she would take the bus going to her office. My son and I then go home, eat dinner (if we haven’t gone out for it at that point), I resume work, practice piano and guitar (or whatever instrument I need to build chops for), remind my son to practice his violin, do other domestic chores and then go to sleep. As you would expect, the next day starts in the exact same fashion as described earlier.

On certain days, I would be interrupted from work when I need to drive my son to his Violin and Wushu classes. There are occasions as well when I have to drive and meet up with certain people for job opportunities, etc.

If you were patient enough to read all of this, you will know for sure that it takes a lot of balls to be a work-at-home dad. As a non-touring musician working at home, I’d have to live with the fact that I cannot afford to have an isolated studio space that separates me from the rest of the world. It just wouldn’t work. If I did, I’d be so lost in that world that I’d forget why am I working at home in the first place. It can be very frustrating for me having to deal with all of the other things surrounding me as I try to compose the greatest piece of music I can ever pull out of my ass.

Allow me to tell you though that my work-at-home-dad situation is worth all the trouble. I get to spend a lot of time with my son. I am able to directly supervise my son’s education and impart to him the Biblical values I hold on to. I am my own boss from a professional perspective. I am in complete control of my time, no matter how hard it is to manage. It doesn’t matter even if I just work wearing a sleeveless shirt and a pair of shorts. I also get to work on the things I am passionate about (this is very obvious).

Would I say that working at home would be a good deal for every man out there? Of course not. Working at home is not for everybody. But if you’re the kind of person with enough patience, dedication and the desire to have near absolute control over one’s life (Note: If you’re a Christian in the Biblical sense, God is in control of your life), then being a work-at-home dad may be a good option for you.

To cap off this piece, let me leave you with a relaxing piece of music I wrote a few months back called “The Water’s Embrace”: