Our Alternative Instruments

Our alt instruments by shueh-li ong

listens to chords played on your MIDI keyboard and plays them back to your MIDI synthesizer just as they would be played from a guitar.
By looking at such factors as the range of the guitar, the number of notes being played, chord position, and the velocity of the performance, the “Strummer” can transform the incoming MIDI data out into performance data emulating that of a real guitarist. Performance data may be delayed, echoed, harmonized, transposed and sent back out on multiple MIDI channels.


is a MIDI controller which generates and sends 2-D positional coordinates to a Midi synthesizer or to a computer for further processing. Designed by Jim Sosnin, a midi hardware inventor and long time friend in Melbourne, this wand is shaped exactly like a baton which you can wave around this 2-D matrix (X and Y) in its basic mode, to send out pitch and volume Midi instructions.
Featured in tandem with CSOUND in a play by The Necessary Stage in Singapore, 2001 (original music and live performance by Shueh-li).

was intended by Homer Dudley (1939), a research physicist at Bell Laboratories, NJ USA, as a research machine for compression schemes to transmit voice over copper phone lines.
W Meyer-Eppler, then the director of Phonetics at Bonn University, recognised the relevance of the machines to electronic music after Dudley visited the University in 1948, and used the vocoder as a basis for his future writings which in turn became the inspiration for the German “Electronische Musik” movement (from website “Obsolete, 120yrs of electronic music”).
The earliest use of the vocoder was by Wendy Carlos for synthesized singing in her score for Stanley Kubrick’s film A Clockwork Orange (1971). It is featured in our Electronic Operas.

pvc system
is made from PVC tubing, cut, spray painted and attached by screws, is connected to the sound generator portion of the synthesizer. This system is appropriate for wide gestured movements e.g. playing percussive sounds.

PVC didj
PVC didj

pvc didjeridoo
carved to play in the key of the piece of music. The technique of playing is circular breathing, vital in maintaining the drone and while allowing the player to take in fresh air.

wx7 wind-controller
taps into the sound generator portion of a synthesizer and emulates the performance nuances of a clarinet/saxophone, and like all MIDI instruments can be configured to do other performance functionalities.

is one of the oldest Chinese musical instruments, most profoundly utilized throughout the Confucian era (600BC-1900 AD). This black silk-stringed zither, in accordance with the Confucian Way, was used as a vehicle for worship, formation of character, and regulation of political life of the state.
The Confucian Superior Man/scholar was expected to be skilled in four arts: Qin (the guqin), Qi (the game of Go), Shu (calligraphy) and Hua (painting).

In its present day form, nylon strings are used. Each instrument is a work of art. Craftsmen still study under the supervision of the master teacher. Performance techniques are passed on by word of mouth though there is hand written technical exercises prepared by a master Gu Qin player who is attempting to formalise such techniques.(**Music and dance are constant features in the writings of Confucianism as they perfectly embody the humaneness and wisdom of their composers.)
Not to be mistaken for the Gu Zheng (lap harp), which has a resonator, an arched surface and is an elongated-trapezoidal with 16-25 strings stretched over individual bridges. The GuQin has 7 strings and no bridge. Symbolic in Chinese high culture, the upper surface is rounded representing the sky; the bottom is flat and represents the earth. The 13 mother-of-pearl inlays along the outer edge represent the months of the lunar year.
The 5 strings of the GuQin symbolised the five elements of I-Ching: Metal, Wood, Water, Fire and Earth.
The 6th string was added by the first ruler of the Zhou Dynasty, Emperor King Wen (about the 11thC BC) to mourn the death of his son Bo Yikao. The sound of this string is sorrowful. The 7th string was added by the second Zhou ruler, King Wu to inspire his soldiers in war. Sadly only a few thousand people can play it, and it is rarely seen in China today.
(quoted from the Clarion Music Centre, Chinese Instrument library and Richard Hooker on Neo-Confucianism).
I visited Guqin Master, Cheng Yu in London. Here is a documentation.

Shueh-li with her Etherwave theremin and Oberheim OB12 (pic © 2013)
Shueh-li with her Etherwave theremin and Oberheim OB12 (pic © 2013)

My theremins
I have in my studio the Moog Etherwave and EPro (1st gen). My volume antennas are inverted; meaning the closer I get to the antenna, the louder the sound, as you would reaching for fire (it’s hottest when you are closet). I 1st played the theremin publicly as part of my electronic opera ‘Metal and Music’  in 1999. Despite years of practice, and development of my own repertoire of articulation and phrasing/expression, I am still a humble student of it. I wouldn’t say it was the hardest instrument to learn how to play. But it is surely like no other to learn and to play! Musical excepts from my 4 CDs at Shuehli.com

The theremin is  a spatially-controlled musical instrument invented by Russian Scientist, Leon Theremin around the 1920’s. It is played by waving both hands, while remaining absolutely still, in front of the 2 antennae. The RH controls pitch while the LH, volume.

Theremin trivia
The Inventor of the Theremin alive?
It was Steven Martin who discovered Leon Theremin, still alive in Russia, while conducting research for his documentary. Leon Theremin, whose Russian name was Lev Sergeivich Termen, had immigrated to the United States in the late 1920s to promote his invention. In 1928, at age 31, he became New York’s celebrated Professor Leon Theremin. About a decade after his arrival, he mysteriously disappeared, and was presumed dead. In 1991, Director Martin brought Leon Theremin to the United States to make his documentary, which includes a scene in which Mr. Theremin recounts his kidnapping by Russian agents so that his technical expertise could be availed by the Communist government during the Cold War. Ironically, Theremin personally demonstrated his invention to appreciative Soviet Dictator Lenin just prior to his immigration to the United States.

The theremin heard
The theremin has been featured in a diversity of performances ranging in genre from Led Zeppelin’ s “Whole Lotta Love” and “The Song Remains The Same” in which Jimmy Page puts on a most spectacular display of theremin manipulation on a version without the volume control antennae, to Alfred Hitchcock’s film score for “Spellbound”; by composer Bernard Herrmann in “The Day the Earth Stood Still”, and in modern compositions such as Jorge Antunes “Mixolydia”, among numerous others. Pink Floyd has the theremin on the middle part of Echoes “Meddle” (according to thereminworld.com’s directory of other bands who use the theremin).

The Electro-theremin: a mechanical controller of sine waves

Contrary to popular belief, the theremin was not used by the Beach Boys in their composition, “Good Vibrations”, written by Brian Wilson. It was in fact the “Electro-theremin” or Tannerin, also known as Paul’s (Tanner who played the now famous line on “Good Vibrations”) Box. Made by actor and electronics enthusiast Bob Whitsell, the name “Electro-theremin” was given at the time of the recording session by the producers.
The Electro-theremin is not a proximity-controlled instrument like Leon’s theremin, but a mechanically controlled oscillator. This permitted the performer precise note control without sacrificing the characteristic glissando effect of the theremin. This was indeed the request Paul Tanner had for Bob Whitsell.

An excerpt from a review by Jon Pareles of the NY Times (Y2000), implicates the Tannerinin Brian Wilson’s recent solo tour “they took along many of the instruments Mr. Wilson used on Pet Sounds,… tannerin, the instrument actually used on Good Vibrations and I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times.”
The rectangular box-like instrument Mike Love played on earlier live versions of Good Vibrations was in fact the Moog ribbon controller, an instrument developed for the Beach Boys in the 1960’s for use in live performances

Blurb from The Art of theremin NB.
The Art of theremin is a recording of classical pieces performed by Clara and accompanied by Nadia.
“The theremin performer plays without the benefit of any tactile reference whatever. Unlike the violinist, who is in constant contact with the instrument’s fingerboard, … the thereminist feels no shape or force as she moves from one pitch to another. She is constantly moving her hands, listening to the resulting pitch changes, then “trimming” the precise position of her hands to home in on the desired pitch and volume. The process is one of continuous aural feedback. For this reason, placement of the theremin loudspeaker is extremely important… Ms. Rockmore uses a large open-backed speaker which she places behind and slightly above her head, pointing out toward her audience. With such an arrangement, she is able to hear the effect of her hand motions soon enough so that her audience is rarely, if ever, aware of the aural feedback corrections that she intuitively applies.”

Other trivia
1) The theremin was also known as the aetherphone.
2) An article about faking the theremin is written by Sam Inglis: Handwaving Exercise: Reproducing theremin sounds using a synthesizer in: Sound on Sound Magazine (UK), p.162 – 164.
3) The Kurzweil 2500 offers its ribbon controller acting on pitch, as an alternative to a real theremin.
4) Another theremin personality of interest is Dr. Hoffman, who, in the early 1940’s was a chiropodist by day, thereminist by night. Look out for Doctor Hoffman in albums Music Out of the Moon, Perfume set to Music, Music for Peace of Mind and theremin piece This Room is My Castle of Quiet which I had the pleasure of listening to at Art’s. Dr Hoffman’s theremin “lounge” music was as you could say, diametrically opposite to Clara’s classical renditions!

I got to catch up with my friend and designer of the Harrison theremins, Art Harrison, and together we visited the Clara Rockmore Exhibit in Maryland.

Discussion on basic Sound Design Techniques by Shueh-li Ong

Designing foley for a cover of MJ's "Thriller". (Screenshot of promo video, featuring Chris Currell of MJ's BAD tour/album. pic © S. Ong 2013)
Designing foley for a cover of MJ’s “Thriller”. (Screenshot of promo video, featuring Chris Currell of MJ’s BAD tour/album. pic © S. Ong 2013)

This post was made after my interview with Passion 99.5FM Singapore. There was an overflow of things I wanted to mention so I decided to place them here instead.

what is sound design?
The term sound design has been greatly misunderstood and borrowed. In this short dissertation I will be referring to production (live or studio) manipulation, transformation and assembly of desired effected sound, rather than the putting together of a sound system for venue installation (ala in a hotel or for architectural acoustics) OR recording snippets from CDs for a theatre play.

do I need to know the technical?
A good grasp of the theory of sound, psychoacoustics, scales, modes, harmony and voice leading, and stylistic and idiomatic interpretation (and a bit of of a wild streak) is necessary in good design production.
I use my various tools and understanding of these techniques to help me dream up new ideas. Sound design is complex. Tools may make it easier, but? to get innovative sounds out of your tools you need to know and imagine beyond basics. To emulate a sound e.g. of something crushing, you will also need to analyse it, prototype it in your head or on paper, then be able to think of a way to reproduce it. Nothing comes easy.

is pitch correction, cheating?
This obsession with pitch correction and whether it is a form of cheating, is I feel a very subjective issue.

An authentic live performance is a grueling exercise, even more so if one is playing an instrument at the same time. In a situation where monitoring reinforcement is weak or ineffective, the singer can totally lose the music hence sing “out of tune” with the backing musicians. Can you imagine trying to hear yourself speak, let alone sing in a noisy room without amplification?
Without citing singers who “can’t sing to save their lives”, I’d like to add that the word ‘Cheating’ is a value judgment. Some musicians utilise the assistance of pitch correction to help them deliver a more “accurate” performance. Other use this technique to create an effect, e.g. Cher in her song “Belief” where glitches appear courtesy of technology.
Loosely speaking a transposition of pitch in real-time without the compression or expansion of the time scale.
Transposition makes resonant frequencies rise, so to put a voice through an instrument pitch shifter, you will end up sounding like a chipmunk. To avoid altering the character of the voice, we need to change the frequency and KEEP the resonance (the vocal cords is the pitch source, the vocal track is the resonator effector.)

HOW CAN TECHNOLOGY ENHANCE THE END RESULT? To enhance is to beautify. To correct is to change to a “right” state if there is one.

reverberation…to smoothen out the rough edges
To understand what reverb means, step into your bathroom and belt out a song. Then step out into your living room, belt out the same song, and hear the difference.
In some instances, singers have been so used to hearing themselves ‘reverbed out’, that in recording studios a little reverb is added to their voice while they are singing, though what is put down on tape is “dry”. This accommodation can backfire if the singer gets too comfortable hearing their voice swimming in the reverb and does not give a “clear” rendition.
I tend to work from both angles as performer and producer. I assess the “effected” version after tweaking the selected effect and “redo” the vocals to get what I desire. OR So I might alter the way I sing/play to get the desired “effect”. There are even foldback monitors out there which come with a mini-mixer to allow the performer to tweak amount of reverb for their own performance comfort level.

To create distance/space/place in the sound field: enhance stereo placement of instruments, and make the mix sound ‘bigger’.
With analog tape machines, the delay was one of the easiest effects to produce, hence first to be used in music recording. This was before you could buy dedicated delay machines. Now we have multi-effects machines with a library of programmable patches!
Length of delay changes characteristic of echo. Used with regeneration (feedback) it is similar to a multi-tap that fades.

multi-tap delay
Multiple delays occurring at user-determined intervals to create a pre-defined pattern(s).

formula to calculate a naturally occurring delay time
Divide the tempo (bpm) of your piece by 60,000, then by 2,4,5 etc. These days, machines come with a feature called tap tempo delay where you simply tap along with the song to get the “right” interval time. However for more complex patterns one will have to get right in and manually tweak.

ALTERED SOUNDS, HOW and WHERE IT IS USED? As an effect that is foreign or to bring out a particular characteristic of the sound.

transformation…disfigurement of the natural characteristics. Implemented on voice, it allows us to change the vocal characteristics more naturally; such as the noise and resonance factor, inflection and vibrato.

ring modulation
Multiplies one signal by another ; a form of amplitude modulation. This form of modulation can lead to a quite noisy and inharmonic spectrum if the two source signals are complex spectra.

Simple system that uses two sound sources, a carrier and a modulator. Makes the voice sound robotic.

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