“Will You Be Checking-in Any Baggage, Mr. Litt?”

When Steven Litt opens up his suitcases, you won’t see socks, shirts and a hairdryer tumble out. (Well, maybe a hairdryer – could come in handy, sonically speaking.)

Instead, you’ll find a small mixer, a mess of wires, hacked doorbells and effects pedals hammering out a somewhat industrial heartbeat. Steven is the inventor of CrudBox, basically a super analog robot drum machine.

photo from Steven Litt

photo from Steven Litt

Steven describes his project this way:

“CrudBox is a 16 step, 8 channel step sequencer which replaces digitally created or analog synthesized sounds typically associated with sequencers and electronic music with the amplified sounds of whatever electronic or electromechanical devices are plugged into it.

There are many new possibilities for sonic experimentation with the diverse combination of sounds and musical structures which can be created with CrudBox. Solenoids and motors can be plugged in and sequenced while striking or otherwise moving or vibrating any physical material and their sounds amplified in real time using Piezo contact mics. These mics, or any other sound source, can be plugged into hacked guitar pedals and effects boxes which can then also be sequenced by CrudBox. Cassette decks, reel to reels, turntables, power tools, and any other sound generating devices can also be hacked and sequenced.”

Here’s a quick demo of the CrudBox:

Steven presented CrudBox at ITP’s Spring Show 2009, and he’s performed with it at Handmade Music events in Brooklyn.

This week at my office in NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, I asked Steven about creating this new musical instrument and what’s next for his suitcase sequencer:

There’s something beautifully retro and organic about CrudBox, and its percussive possibilities seem limitless due to the variety of scrap materials and devices that can be used with it. There’s no software or computers involved at all, and though it probably has just as much musical flexibility as something you might manipulate digitally, CrudBox can also receive MIDI information from a program like Ableton.

I can’t wait until Steven sells a kids’ version of CrudBox to Fisher-Price, a gift to the exasperated parents of budding musicians everywhere. 🙂

Jocelyn Gonzales

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Meet the Old Boss, Same as the New Boss

All musicians have a few pieces in their lives that, when they heard it it for the very first time, it was an epiphany, it was something that said to them, “This is what you were meant to do,” almost like a memory that had been implanted since birth had been awakened. One of these moments for me was when a friend popped in a cassette tape (look it up kids) of “Who’s Next” by The Who and I heard the opening synthesizer part to “Baba O’Riley” only to end when more of the same on the albums closer “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” How surprising it would be, years later, to learn that Pete Townsend’s sequencer-driven, phase-shifting rhythm track was in turn inspired in part by Terry Riley’s minimalist manifesto “In C,” itself a study in loop-based composition though played on an indeterminate ensemble of acoustic instruments.

Previous to this I had been learning the classics through the side-door of Wendy Carlos’ and Isao Tomita’s transcriptions via the Moog. The other shoe had dropped. I could be cool now amongst my peers, always a primary concern to a teenager. The Who keep me going until, without the help of MTV or today’s internet, new bands started catching my attention on the late night Detroit airwaves (shows like Radios in Motion and The Electrifyin’ Mojo) and I moved sharply away from classic rock into a New Wave.

The personal note above has been added to show that things change quickly, one cannot get stuck in a rut. This is especially true if one wishes to stay on top of innovation. To illustrate this, here are two videos of Pete Townsend. This first one shows how the electronic rhythm track to that “Who’s Next “ album came into being:

Now compare this to the very same, if not heightened, enthusiasm he shows in a recent video, almost a tutorial really, that, camera in hand, he made himself in the studio (still his fascination of loop-based composition is thriving):

I can only hope that I’ll retain the same open mindedness 30 years down the road when I’m confronted by whatever means of music making we’ll have then.

-Patrick Grant