The Tesla Guitar

My Tesla Guitar video has got quite a lot of views lately, so I’ll try and address some of the comments people have made on it here.

1. Yes, the sound comes out of the sparks. There are no other amps or speakers involved.

2. Yes, it sounds pretty harsh and horrible, no matter what pedals I try. It also needs a different playing style than you would use with an ordinary amp, and even then it sounds awful! Any chords more complex than octaves or fifths just sound like noise.

This is a consequence of the way the signal is processed into pulses for driving the Tesla coil. I’ve not figured out a way to improve the tone without losing the lightning-like look and large size of the sparks.
It works much better with bleepy waveforms from a monophonic synth, which is why the other famous musical Tesla coil sounds better. The only part of the video when you can actually hear a melody, is when I played a lick that I’d found to work well with guitar synths in the past.

I think some Youtube poster suggested a hexaphonic pickup and six channels of processing, one per string, and he is right, this would help a lot. But I don’t really want to build another five channels of electronics and recharacterize everything for EMI all over again. Anyway, the terrifying distortion might even be useful in some kinds of music!

3. What pedals did I use in front of it? For the video, a Marshall Shredmaster distortion pedal. It actually makes no difference to the tone, but adds sustain, which it was sadly lacking otherwise.

4. It is possible to mic it up safely, I’ve done it!

5. I’m still waiting to hear from Trent Reznor and Muse :-<

It’s not the easiest or safest instrument to practice with, but I’m working on improving the sustain and adapting my playing style to it. Watch this space for a better sounding demo!

Less is More: Pay More, Get Less

‘What can we design that makes our life better, not just “more”‘ –

I recently read Treehugger’s debate on Nikon’s decision to stop making film cameras. I think it summed up a lot of things I’ve been dealing with lately, so I decided to do some blogging about it.

If you live in the developed world in the 21st century, as I do, you probably know all about “more”. More megapixels, gigabytes and gigahertz every couple of years. Cell phones that can surf the net, whether you actually want to or not: I’ve covered this issue before.

But there’s another kind of more that I find even more insidious: More features on our software and consumer gadgets. Once a designer puts a microprocessor into a gadget, he can add extra features by just adding more computer code. These features add practically no manufacturing cost to the end product, while they can still be used as selling points by the advertising guys, so the result is a kind of feature arms race.

The downside of this is that buttons, knobs and large displays do add manufacturing cost, so if the designer wants to maximize features per unit cost, he ends up using a very deep and complicated menu system to control his features. Operating an instrument like this can feel like flying a Jumbo jet when your only access to the flight deck is a letterbox-sized hole and a pool cue. More might be better for the sales guys, but it’s definitely not better for the poor end user.

This is possibly the thing I hate most about the information age. Back in the good old days, instruments had one button per function. To listen to music, you grabbed a vinyl record, put it on a turntable, and lowered a stylus onto the track you wanted. The record deck did not suddenly turn into an address book because you accidentally double-clicked the 33rpm button, and make you spend 10 minutes figuring out how to transform it back. In short, each function had a real, material cost in terms of hardware. The result was that designers had to think hard about what functions to implement, and make sure they were really worthwhile.

I’ve never felt this more than in my dealings with electronic music. Synthesizers, samplers and recording software are powered by microprocessors, made for gearheads by gearheads, but a good musical performance needs an intuitive, gut-level connection between the musician and the instrument. There is very little time for double-clicks or multi-level menus, unless you’re Kraftwerk.

I’m “lucky” enough to own some of the worst excesses of the 90s, like the Yamaha A4000 sampler. It has the jumbo jet syndrome in spades: it took me a good six months to get comfortable working my way round the user interface, in so far as you could get comfortable at all. It bombed, to the extent that fully loaded examples can be found on Ebay for about $250. (I’m keeping mine.)

The polar opposite of this would be a “classic synth” that does one thing and does it very well. Sometimes this isn’t even what the designer intended it to do, as in the case of the legendary TB-303. Its built-in pattern sequencer was so awful that very few people had the patience to program more than a few two-bar loops. The tone generator only had five knobs to change the sound – six if you count the tuning – but those few adjustments were carefully chosen and delightfully tweakable.

These built-in limitations led to the birth of acid house music, and the 303 has kept its resale value a lot better than the A4000 🙂

Windows command of the week: “netsh winsock reset”

I discovered this fascinating command when trying to fix Kat’s computer.

Originally it showed a completely empty desktop with no icons or taskbar, just the wallpaper, even in so-called “Safe Mode”. A rollback to the last known good configuration solved this, but the networking still wouldn’t work. The DNS resolved domain names as garbage, some even containing bell characters that made the machine beep.

I tried uninstalling the driver for the network card and rebooting, at which point the DNS just stopped working altogether. The “ipconfig /renew all” command failed saying that “No adapter is in the state permissible for this operation”.

A quick Google search for this error message (using my handy palmtop that happened to work with Kat’s wi-fi) turned up a MSDN article that basically said: “Shit happens, type ‘netsh winsock reset’ and reboot”

And what do you know, it worked 🙂

Wisdom teeth, who needs them?

My dentist seemed to think I’d be better off without mine! So after almost a year on the waiting list, I finally got all four of them extracted at the Glasgow Dental Hospital. It was a gruesome process that involved drilling holes in my jawbone to get the impacted ones out. However, I wasn’t really caring, since they sedated me with Midazolam first. It is pretty good stuff! It’s supposed to cause amnesia, but I definitely have a vague memory of things getting drilled and yanked. I don’t remember getting injected with the local anaesthetic, though, which is usually the part I hate the most.

What I wasn’t prepared for, though, was just how much it would hurt afterwards! About a week after the operation, the empty sockets started to hurt bad enough to keep me awake all night and generally not be a nice person to be around! Apparently I had so-called dry socket, which actually means “Bits of bare jawbone that need washed every few hours to prevent infection”.

So, if you’re having your impacted wisdom teeth out, here is a shopping list of things you might find useful.

  • Soup. Lots of soup. Bananas, porridge, yoghurt and scrambled eggs are good too. Don’t try drinking stuff through a straw, though!
  • Ibuprofen and paracetamol (seem to be the best painkillers for the job)
  • Corsodyl or a similar antiseptic mouthwash
  • Dental mirror and flashlight (if you have a morbid sense of curiosity)
  • Squeezy bottle or large syringe with a rubber tube attached. If you got the dental mirror and flashlight, you’re going to want this too, for hosing the now-visible lumps of food out of your socket holes, before they go septic…

Anyway, enough of this, ugh! 😛

NHS Direct on wisdom teeth
more from the University of Manitoba

Nix command of the week: tail

If you’ve messed around with Linux, you might well have used the “tail” command. All it does is print the last few lines of a file. For example,

tail -n 10 /var/log/apache2/access.log

will show you the last 10 pages that the webserver served. (Assuming you’re running the 2.x version of Apache.)

But for extra geeky thrills, the -f option will make tail watch the file and print out any new lines as they appear. So:

tail -f /var/log/apache2/access.log

will print out whatever Apache is putting into the log file as it is putting it in. Handy for keeping an eye on log files when you’re debugging stuff.

You can crank the geeky thrills up another level by pipelining it into something else, like our old friend from Unix school, grep. For instance,

tail -f /var/log/apache2/access.log |grep sheep

will alert you whenever anyone tries to access a page with “sheep” in the filename. How useful!

PS: press Ctrl-C to exit.