Sunday, July 10, 2011

Electric bassoon again

I've been trying to goof around with electric stuff again. For looping and overdubbing, I've done some experimenting just with apps on my iPod touch. For audio input, I've been using the onboard mic, with output through the earbuds. The audio quality seems okay, and there are not too many cables. The app I've been working with is Everyday Looper, which seems to have acquired some hyperkinetic fans.  It's not perfect, as you need fingers on the screen in order to control the app, but it works well enough to have some fun. It also allows me to just play long tones with myself: we spend some of my lesson time playing tones together, listening for intonation and tone, and this is a way to replicate that at home. For a performing situation, though, I worry about feedback when combining a mic and an amp. Last year I bought one of Trent Jacob's Little Jake pickups, and modified a bocal to attach it. I was a little surprised at how different the tone was from the acoustic bassoon tone, see the link for recordings, but since it's intended as a sound source for further processing by effects pedals, etc., I accepted it. But I didn't have any effects pedals, and got busy with other things, so I kind of let it collect dust for awhile.

Other pickup options I've run into : Paul Hanson claims that his FRAP pickup has a very natural sound, essentially equivalent to a studio recording mic, and used only the FRAP when recording with Bela Fleck. The FRAP is no longer available, but the Josephson WT2 seems to be the closest equivalent, which Paul recommends here. (Paul also recommends the Little Jake.) I haven't seen pricing on the web, but I seem to recall reading that it would be more than $700 or so. The classic Telex is a more reasonably priced alternative, sold by Forrests, and is reviewed here. I have a hard time translating the words into what it sounds like, and I don't know of any recordings of it online. But I think Trent has one, and was nevertheless motivated to design, build, and market his own, so I'd expect Trent's to be lots better.

A bassoon pickup ought to be similar to other woodwinds. The clean sound on this electric clarinet is pretty good, assuming there's no acoustic mic offscreen. It seems to be some kind of custom job, and he doesn't say what type of transducer he's using. The Pasoana is one commercially available option for clarinet. For flute, a close mic is common, especially one at the lip plate, or even inside the cork, such as the Barcus Berry 6100. Barcus Berry also makes contact pickups, but these give unacceptable amounts of key noise, says Marc Eubanks. For sax, I think the usual solution is a small clip-on mic pointed into the bell. Some bassoonists mix the signals from two close mics, one at the bell, and another near the right hand, to get sound both from the bore and the toneholes. Trent's thesis reviews this in more detail.  Linsey Pollak has some kind of pickup in his Mr. Curly video below. I'm not sure what the natural tone is for a feather duster or a garden hose, so it's hard to critique the pickup's quality. He mentions in a couple of places using a Danabug pickup, made in Scandinavia, but I can't find more information about it anywhere.

In any case, I have a pickup, I have an iPod with a mic and many apps which will simulate amps and effects. Yesterday I picked up an iRig, which is a $40 adapter that allows you to actually plug your guitar, or whatever pickup or mono sound source you have, directly into your iPod, and get the audio out again. So now I have a complete chain: Little Jake pickup -> preamp (LR Baggs) -> iRig -> iPod -> {iOS apps: Everyday Looper, AmpliTube, RiotFX, etc} -> amp. I spent a couple hours, just playing with sounds, figuring out the technology and trying to not get tangled in all of the wires. It's more convenient than an acoustic mic, audio interface, and a computer, in terms of complexity, but it's still a lot more trouble than just picking up the horn and playing. The all software solution has disadvantages, compared to hardware floor pedals: you can't route audio from one app to another, and control requires fingers. But the software has big advantages in flexibility and cost. No recordings yet, but I'll get there.


  1. The danabug suits cylindrical bores, but is no longer made. It seems to be a phone speaker the fits a brass o-ring sealed insert which you install in your barrel or mouthpiece. Linsey Pollak has a fitting in each mouthpiece and swaps the bug during performances.
    Steve Francis makes a piezoelectric pickup into the clarinet barrel which work beautifully with a 3mm jack socket on the outside. It would be interesting to get him to fit one to the bocal of the bassoon. Thanks for your blog, I'll let you know how it goes.

  2. I would be happy to try it - I just need a cheap bocal to test it (if there is such a thing as a cheap bocal).