Back in episode 26, "One Glorious Note," frequent DMI guest George "the Fat Man" Sanger played examples of electronic instruments that sound so good, a single note can transfix a listener. Here's the second half of our conversation, in which we extend the idea to DIY sound effects and the Maker movement. (DMI 10-30-2008: 13 minutes 41 seconds)

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Production Notes: Recording

I reached the Fat Man at his Texas studio, Abbey Trails, by SkypeOut, recording our conversation on my Mac with Ecamm Call Recorder. Because that meant his side of the call was still going through the cruddy telephone mic and harsh Skype compression (my voice went directly to my computer through my Logitech 250 USB headset), I had Fat record into his computer as well with a second, high-quality mic. After we finished, he sent me his side of the conversation as an MP3 so I could sync it up with mine, using his Skype track as a reference.

Casio parts
The Great Big Kitty Litter Bucket of Casio Parts awaits experimentation. (Click to enlarge.)

To synchronize the local and remote voice tracks, I loaded them into my multitrack editor, Ableton Live, and then panned the Skype reference track 100% left and the direct vocal 100% right. Listening on headphones, that made it easy to tell when the two tracks were in sync. (The brain can detect ear-to-ear differences of a fraction of a second; it's one way we deduce the direction of sounds.)

Theoretically, I should have been able to drag the remote vocal left or right on the timeline until it lined up with the reference vocal. But as I've discovered in previous two-ender recordings, the two parts often run at a slightly different speeds, requiring some warping (time-stretching) in Live to sync over the long run.

This time, however, I couldn't find a warp setting that worked. No matter what I did, the Fat Man's direct vocal would be behind the Skype reference at the beginning and ahead of it at the end. Finally, I realized he'd stopped the recording briefly in the middle of our conversation, creating a "ripple in time." Scanning through the waveforms visually, I found the place where the direct signal was missing a few humps. I then split the clip into two parts and slid the second part later in time so its beginning lined up again. With the missing chunk restored, I found that slowing the direct signal 0.02 bpm put the two recordings back into usable sync.

Sound Effects

This episode features a lot of brief sound effects. I recorded the waterlogged Gertie ball with an Olympus WS-311M stereo voice recorder. The Fat Man then sent me a big bunch of MP3s, which I thought sounded mighty punchy, so I asked what he did. He replied:

  1. Record any way you can. A bad recording is much better than no recording. I use everything from a Zoom H2 to a [Neumann] 87. I've even used those keychain voice-note recorders. If I'm not mistaken, most of what you hear is recorded on a MiniDisc using the small Sony stereo mic that came with it (the "Hunnadalla" mic, because it costs a hunna dallas). The doorstop was recorded by my son, whom I taught to use the MiniDisc.
  2. Use Sound Forge noise reduction, then normalize, and then use that Wave Hammer sound-smasher program, set to "master for 16 bit."
  3. The secret to "punchy" is that three and only three cycles of your waveform should go into the red, and at least three cycles of your waveform should be dead silence. Then turn everything else down except what you want to be punchy. Then use your ears to correct the formula. Then play it for a producer who has no hands with which to turn up the bass and treble, or to otherwise crush the life from your punchy sound. And make sure everybody listens to it while they are scared, and high on coffee.
  4. Now it's punchy. Punch anybody who says it ain't.
Prototype Leslie speaker
With no way to keep the speaker wires from snarling, this prototype Leslie speaker never worked, but it inspired another model you can see and hear in the Fat Man's article for Make, "Spatial Education."

Arrangement and Editing

After marking the sections of the conversation I wanted, I exported them as stereo WAV files (my voice on the left, Fat's on the right) for precision editing in BIAS Peak. I used the Destroy FX Monomaker plugin to pan both sides to the center temporarily so I wouldn't go dizzy. I then snipped out "ums" and used the amazing Izotope RX to remove a telephone ring and some of the fan noise my mic picked up from my Mac.

Surround Board
The Fat Man wired up this multi-speaker system to preview music he was composing for a bank of slot machines.

As usual, I then took my Windows laptop into the closet and used Apple QuickTime Pro to record my voiceover. For a mic, I returned to the Rode Podcaster. I added a fabric pop filter in front of the mic this time, which reduced P-pops, but I still had to do a bit of editing in Peak to banish tongue clacks and false starts.

Next, I imported everything into a new Ableton Live session, slid the elements around on the timeline to get the best flow, enhanced the vocals with Izotope Ozone, adjusted levels with envelopes, and rendered the mix into a stereo AIFF file. Finally, I converted the mix to an MP3 in iTunes, where I added the cover art.

The Digital Media Insider theme music came together in Live as well. The opening sound effect is a compressed mouth noise spliced onto a tone cluster I generated in Native Instruments Reaktor. The main groove is from Steinberg Xphraze. (Jim Aikin turned me on to both virtual instruments in his article "My Five Favorite Soft Synths.") The piano is from the Garritan Personal Orchestra, which I discovered when we interviewed Gary Garritan.

The theme also features a few percussion samples dredged from my hard drive. Altogether, it took just six tracks. Effects processing was courtesy of Live's default plugins and Freeverb.

And More…

You can find all 28 episodes of Digital Media Insider on the show's home page,