Some more light controlled music….

An attempt to play something a bit more musical on the light controlled audio system I’m currently working on.

Building an m-log

Friday, October 2nd, 2009 | Building Things, Electronics, m-log, Max/MSP, Processing | 3 Comments

The m-log is a ‘build your own controller’ kit currently in development by the Owl Project. Using it you can control;  Pure Data, MAX/MSP, SuperCollider, Processing amongst other software. The idea is that you have a set of sensors provided in the kit (accelarometer, 2 potentiometers,2 switches, 2 buttons) then you choose how you want to arrange them. You can easily add your own sensors to the kit and it plays happily with most of the sensors from iCube, Infusion systems or phidgets as well as ones from you favorite electronics retailer.  I have been involved in a small way in it’s development and I recently gave a talk at an m-log building workshop where unfortunately I had to give back the m-log I had been borrowing from them. The good news was that they gave me one of the new kits they are developing. As I’m currently thinking about re-designing my on-stage set-up this could not have come at a better time.

m-log kit components

m-log kit components

The standard kit contains:

  • Pre-routed wooden body and back – mine is Laburnum
  • muio interface board
  • Accelerometer (roll & pitch) not shown in picture!
  • USB interface chip
  • Analogue input chip (4 channels)
  • Power LED
  • USB cable
  • Various Potentiometers, switches, buttons

This standard kit allows you up to 4 analogue controls (which output values between 0-254) in addition to 8 digital inputs (on or off). I wanted more analogue controllers which is acheived by simply adding an extra analogue input chip. You can connect a whole host of different sensors to the m-log including: Light dependant resistors, switches (tilt, reed, button, toggle),passive infra-red detectors, thermistors, potentiometers, bend sensor, pressure sensor…..

raw m-log housing

raw m-log housing

 The first thing I did on receiving the kit was to have a good look at the wooden body. The owl project have made a good job of selecting very pretty wood. Test fitting the interface board it’s clear that the routing is of very high precision, the USB connector sitting snugly in it’s square hole. Because trees come in all sorts of shapes and sizes the logs in the kits vary quite a bit in size and appearance.  When I handled my log-body It felt quite fat and I was not particularly into the feel of the rough bark on my hands so I decided to remove the bark and some of the wood around the sides.

I marked the extents of the routing on both ends of the log to make sure I would not remove too much material. I used small sharp plane to remove wood from the sides until it sat comfortably in my hand.

The next step was to think about what kind of sensors I wanted to put into my log and where to put them. I really like using the joystick controllers in my joy-pad so I decided to include a joystick (which i took out of a cheap USB game controller). I also wanted to have a light sensor (LDR) and a selection of knobs and buttons. I sketched out some ideas and finally came up the  following design.

I paid particular attention to the spacing of the knobs and buttons. The controller  would not be fun to use if it was a strain to reach the different controls so I took plenty of time to make sure I could reach all easily. The buttons on the side were laid out by holding the body and marking where my fingers fell naturally. I would warn against putting controls too close together because they’ll be difficult to operate (esp knobs). It’s also worth noting that if you cover your entire controller with knobs and buttons you might not be able to hold it without accidently activating some of them (actually this might be quite fun). Finally check that all the components will actually fit into the space provided in the log!!!

body with all holes drilled and counter-sinking

body with all holes drilled and counter-sinking

I marked out the positions of the holes I wanted in my log and used brad-point drills in an electric hand-drill to make the holes. Warning I would recommend you securely clamp down the body while drilling. The texture of the wood varies which can cause the drill-bit to jam and forcefully rotate the the log or worse, jump out and make a complete mess of your hand. The one inch spiral cut up the inside of my index finger really hurts! 

The top of the log is about 5mm thick so you can’t get a potentiometer to attach to it properly. You’ll need to recess the top surface a little to get the nut and washer on. I managed to find an attachment for my Dremel multi-tool which did this perfectly. After the finger incident I didn’t want to take any chances so I clamped the log down and wore safety glasses to do this part.

joystick liberated from cheap joypad

joystick liberated from cheap joypad

I made a nice leaver for my joystick out of a piece of Pine dowel. I shaped it with a chisel and sand paper before super-gluing it to the metal shaft of the joystick mechanism. Be careful with super-glue and components, if the glue runs down into the mechanism it might ruin the part.

Owl Simon showed me a neat way of making wooden switches for the m-log. You’ll need tactile switches, a hole-cutter and some extra wood to cut the buttons from.

wooden cores made by the hole cutter

wooden cores made by the hole cutter

I used a 16mm hole cutter. I assume the dimension refers to the resultant hole and not the core as mine ended up about 12mm across which ended up being perfect. I cut down the cores into shot lengths suitable for buttons and sanded away any sharp edges. The buttons will be hot glued onto the tactile switches shown below.

very tactile buttons

very tactile buttons

For the 4 button section on the front of the log Mounted the tactile switches on perf-board. The brown part of the tactile switch was a bit too long so I clipped them using wire cutters. On reflection It may have been better to drill out the buttons a little more to accept the longer tactile switches, but the buttons I made were not very deep and I didn’t want to risk drilling completely through them.

4 button set-up

4 button set-up

The perf-board will be hot-glued into position on a little wooden riser inside the log. After this is done the 4 buttons are carefully hot glued to the switches.

4 button mounting

4 button mounting

 I mounted the two side buttons in a very similar way using thin strips of perf-board and hot-glue. I didn’t manage to get a good photo of it but you can just about make them out in the photo below.

Soldering all the components together is fairly straightforward, I had Owl Steve on the end of the phone to help out as complete wiring diagrams are not finished yet. The board is logically laid out and a lot of the connections are repeated so it won’t take long to get into the flow. I used solid core wire for my first connections which was very stupid of me and caused a few problems including a lifted track on the board when I had to re-solder a mistake. Some of the traces are quite tiny so I’d recommend thin stranded wire or stranded ribbon cable (which I took from an old printer cable). The ribbon cable keeps things nice and neat too which is a bonus when you have lot’s of sensors going the the board. My problems were all easily rectified and I soon ended up with a nice rats nest of cables. I don’t have time to go into the specifics of the wiring here but have a look at the muio site for further details.

nearly everything soldered up

nearly everything soldered up....

When wiring up It’s important to keep test fitting the board into the log. This will make sure that your wires are long enough and that everything will fit when the time comes to glue the back on. I also made sure all my connections were correct by periodically plugging the board into the computer and using the muio server software to check the readings coming from the log. It’s a good idea to do this as you go along so you can catch wiring mistakes one at a time. I was wiring quite late at night and I did make a few mistakes but the board didn’t complain and kept on chugging along.

nearly done...

everything working

As you can see, there is not a lot of wasted space inside the m-log. All the components live under the board so it’s important to guard against accidental shorts. Before gluing on the back make a final test with the muio server and adjust the on-board trimmers to set the bounds of the analogue input range(s). This enables you to set the high and low boundaries of your accelerometer. 

I choose not to use the supplied back because I wanted something really thin and happened to have a nice 2mm thick piece of mahogany veneer lying about. I rough cut it to size, and glued it on with wood glue. While it was drying in the clamps I cut some more wooden cores using the hole cutter to use as knobs. When the back was dry I sanded it into the contour sides and ends. All done! 

Completed m-log

Completed m-log

I’m really pleased with my m-log, It works well and communicates as expected with the computer. The accelerometer gives nice control when rolling and pitching the m-log and I’m looking forward to making some Max/MSP patches to exploit this data. I had a few problems with some of the buttons sticking, but I think i can sort this out without too much trouble. 

I’ve started making some abstractions to help in dealing with the m-log data in Max/MSP which will be downloadable as soon as they are ready. I’ll also be making some little m-log software instruments for download soon.

Finally the kit is not available to buy yet, I don’t know when it will be or how much it will cost but if you have ideas or suggestions please leave a comment and I’ll make sure the developers read them.

Take care,

Leafcutter John.

Tags: , , , ,

Return of the Attractors!

Thursday, March 5th, 2009 | Building Things, images, Processing | 1 Comment

I recently received an email asking for more information and code about my attractor experiments in Processing. I initially thought I’d write a little tutorial but as I was searching around I found a great site with code examples by Dave Bollinger. His experiments do almost exactly what I have been doing but his examples are probably better programmed than mine and thus simpler to understand, you can find a load of his work here. And a nice attractor here.

While I was playing with my own attractor I got some nice new images by concentrating the attractors on the x axis:


orbs on the x axis

orbs aligned on the x axis

and a surprising set of moth wings:

Attractors give you wings!

Attractors give you wings!

I also did some non-real-time animations in which the attractors are moved slightly each frame which creates ever-shifting fields of attraction and repulsion which = pretty!

All best,

Leafcutter John.

Tags: , , , , ,

Animated Graphic Score Played by York University Music Students

Wednesday, February 25th, 2009 | Graphic Scores, Processing | 10 Comments


This is a recording of the first run-through of my score with students from York Uni’s Music Department. I love how they played the piece and it’s even more amazing considering this was the first time they had laid eyes on it. The result is surprisingly coherent given that there are 11 people playing.

Recorded with a little stereo mic in the middle of the room so the instrument balance is way off I’m afraid. The piece will be performed by an augmented version of this ensemble as part of the York Spring Music Festival in May 2009.

Many thanks to the musicians for their enthusiasm and for allowing me to put up a rehersal, and thanks to Simon for all his organising!

Performed by: 

  • Violin – Hannah Wells
  • Viola – Vic Bernath
  • Cello – Chris Mullender
  • Double Bass – Vanessa McWilliam
  • Double Bass – Gareth Taitt
  • Oboe – Des Clarke 
  • Flute – Megan Fennell
  • Flute – Ellie Haines
  • French Horn – Benjamin Gait
  • Piano – Dave Morecroft
  • Voice – Anna Goldbeck-Wood
Leafcutter John.

Tags: , , ,

Micro-Sound Remix update I & new duo project NAILS

Monday, February 23rd, 2009 | Micro-Song, nails, Processing, remix | No Comments

Hello everyone, 

I’ve had several inquires about where people can find the remix files – well they don’t exist yet I’m afraid. I was planning on making the next micro-song available for remix but I have not had change to make a micro-song yet as I’ve been a bit busy on other projects lately (like the the never-ending rent payment project). Sorry about the delay, but it’s nice to know you are generally into the idea.

Nails artwork made with Processing

Nails artwork made with Processing

One of the things I did last week was to make a myspace site for my duo project with Seb Rochford. We are called NAILS and you can visit, listen & befriend us right HERE! There will be more music up when we have had chance to do more edits….

best wishes,

Leafcutter John.

Tags: , , ,

Animated Graphic Score as played by Kammer Klang Quartet!

Wednesday, January 28th, 2009 | Graphic Scores, Live Shows, Processing | 11 Comments

I’m really happy about how the premiere of the score piece turned out! I think the Kammer Klang Quartet did an excellent job with it. It was inspiring to see how each individual dealt with the notation in a different way while still maintaing some kind of group integrity. It seemed like the whole thing went down well with the audience too, perhaps because they could see the score projected as it was played. I’m going to work on a second score as soon as I finish off the things I have on my plate at the moment, perhaps now the rules have been established it might be fun to bend them a little.

I must thank Lucy for putting on a great night and Dave for his dedication to the sound! Also my thanks to Mr Leo – Simon Bookish who’s criticism and suggestions were invaluable in the making of this piece. 

The Kammer Klang Quartet were:

Kammer Klang is a monthly event and I highly recommend it!

Finally a note about the video – The audio sync is not perfect, this is a video issue and nothing to do with the fine playing of the Quartet! The sound was recorded on my little Sony D-50 and my Soundman Binaural mic’s laid on a table so it’s not fantstic. Good enough though to illustrate the evening’s events.

All the best,

Leafcutter John.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

I thought you used to be a musician once?

It’s been over a year and a half since my last album came out. Since then i’ve been busy with lots of different projects. Learning new skills, playing music with my band and with Polar Bear. In the whole it’s been a very happy time. Since January last year I have been trying to write new material for what I hope will be a new record. The strange thing is that when I listen back to what I have recorded a lot of it strikes me as not being quite right. This is not my self-conscious ego talking, well maybe partially but there is definitely something a bit broken in my creative process when it comes to songwriting. A particular problem has been the writing of lyrics. This can be really difficult at the best of times but for me over the last year it has often felt like I have absolutely nothing to say. This is of-course absolute rubbish as I’m sure something is in there but it’s been impossible thus far to get it to come out. I have managed to make a few pieces but my feeling is that they are not very good or trying to be something that I’m not. Trouble is I’m finding it hard to know what I ‘really’ am.

I have tried various methods to coax the timid little rabbit out of it’s burrow. I have tried the ‘write something every day’ method which produced material but it was, err really really bad. I then tried the ‘don’t do anything unless you feel like it’ approach which lead to me staying in bed a lot. I then went back to listen to the ‘something every day’ material which made me feel pretty depressed but I decided that I had not given it enough time to work so I started on it again which lead to yet more crap. Crap on Monday, crap on Tuesday, and on Wednesday more crap for a change… You get the idea. At one point I was ready to toss in a stick of dynamite down the hole and put an end to that stubborn furry little bastard.

There is lots of advice to ‘cure’ writers block available on the web – but let me warn you. If you happen to be suffering to the extent that you are desperate enough to take this ridiculous step you might also be sufficiently weakened to actually try some of the methods. Take it from me JUST DON’T OK! Take for example lovely Tina Morgan. She advises in her ’10 Ways to Beat Writers Block’:

3) Take Prozac – seriously – if you’ve been suffering from the symptoms of depression, talk to your doctor. There may be something he/she can do to help, be it medication or therapy. (of course, always check with your doctor before taking any medication)

Are you fucking serious!? I can quite do without developing a drug dependency. Oh and by the way Tina not being able to work properly for a year is fairly depressing but something tells me the pharmacist is not the one I should turn too. From the insane to the ridiculous she goes on to suggest:

6) Play on the jungle gym, crawl on the floor after your toddler for 20 minutes – not just for the exercise but also for down time from life’s problems and to marvel in the joy of exploration. 

Well I have no idea what a jungle gym is and I have absolutly no desire to get a toddler in order to find out. Perhaps unfairly I chose her as an example but there are countless others peddling such well meaning crap. there must be some great resources out there for the blocked, it’s just that I didn’t find anything that didn’t either make me laugh, cry, or want to disable the author. I guess the problem is that each person gets blocked for different reasons and there really are no simple answers or any website, book, or guru that can be consulted for them. The answers annoyingly (but simply enough) lie within.

You might by this point (in what is turning into an essay), be thinking “Why the hell are you putting this shit out there for everyone to read, just deal with it man! You are not getting my sympathy”. Or “Are you going to tell me you discovered the secret of becoming un-blocked and then try and sell it to me?” Well I’m really quite nervous about posting this blog, I’m not sure how people will react. But when I made this new website I put in a category called “The Making of the 5th Leafcutter Album” in which I imagined would document the triumphant making of a masterpiece (that’s sarcasm btw) Anyway I have decided that it’s time to start writing about the album, come rain or shine. I love all the things I’m studying but my number one desire is to communicate with people through song. When it works it fills me with an indescribable joy when it’s broken I want desperately to find a way to fix it. That’s the first reason I’m writing this and it explains the lack of new music here. Secondly there are probably loads of people currently stuck or experiencing similar things to this and it can’t hurt to share one’s experiences. The third reason is that I would like to try and publicly un-block myself by producing a series of Micro-Songs on this blog. I think one of the problems I’m having is that I try and do too much in a single song and I get very uptight thinking about how well or badly I can play and sing. I tend to obsess over some tiny detail which can, in the end de-rail the whole song I’m working on. 

If you are a regular reader here you will no doubt be aware that I’m currently learning the programming language Processing. In Processing a program is refered to as a sketch. At first I thought the idea of sketching code was cute but slightly ridiculous. But the more I sketch, the more Inspired an idea it seems. Thinking of coding as sketching removes the implication that code has to be long, tedious and hard to understand. An idea can be expressed quickly and with a minimum of fuss. It can be scruffy, half finished, broken and still somehow beautiful. In short it’s exaclty what I need for my songwriting.

So what is a Micro-song?

  • Short and not overly complex
  • Self Confident
  • Not concerned with virtuosity or eliminating errors
  • Honest and true (It does not have to pretend to be anything other than what it is because it’s content)

I tried today to write my first Micro-Song and freed from the rubbish I had floating about in my head about what my music should sound like I managed, with relative ease to create something which I’m actually very fond of. As a song I’m not sure what it means other than that I managed to make something that I don’t despise.

I humbly give you “Big Black Eyes” (haha)

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

“Don’t move over, don’t move over. Good night, night, night-night. Big black eyes. Never sleep.”

It’s late but I’m going to post this anyway, please forgive spelling and grammar.

All the best,

Leafcutter John.

P.S. this is for Maria & Seb, may you never tire x x x.

Tags: , , , ,

Attraction & Repulsion Study Parts I & II

Thursday, January 15th, 2009 | Building Things, Processing | No Comments

A system of magnets with constantly shifting poles attract and repel particles. The first bare bones video shows how it works. Black magnets repel white magnets attract. The red lines are force lines between particles and magnets if there is no red line the particle is out of range of the magnet. The second video hides the workings and adds 10,000 or so particles.

Attraction & Repulsion I

Attraction & Repulsion II

Tags: , , , , ,

Feather Study – PT I – Skeleton

Tuesday, January 13th, 2009 | Building Things, feather study, images, Processing | 2 Comments


Finding more and more ‘educational’ ways to avoid filling in my tax return! Yesterday I started a study of feathers. As is my want at the moment i’m doing it in Processing and have learned lot’s already. 

The feather is built along a Bézier Curve (green). This forms the spine of the feather and is deformed by the two red control points. The spine is divided into equal lengths and a ‘barb’ projects out from each subdivision. The length and angle of the barbs create the different feather shapes. 

Leafcutter John x.

Tags: , , ,

Processing Arrows

Sunday, January 11th, 2009 | Building Things, images, Processing | 1 Comment

Randomly generated arrow compositions which came about while I was learning about classes in Processing. Click image for more on flickr.


Tags: , ,

Social Links


For you YOUTUBE VIDEO pleasure