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Sam McPheeters, Author

I just finished reading Mutations: The Many Strange Faces of Hardcore Punk, by author Sam McPheeters. It’s a great book, and I recommend it. And I don’t recommend a lot of books! (Because I don’t read a lot of books…)

Besides being a great storyteller, I share this odd kinship with Sam, though it may be one-sided. I’ve always admired his work, and we’ve crossed paths a few times. Now, in the book he mentions interactions with people and failures (perceived or real) throughout his life. I thought I would share a few times I encountered Sam.

Disclaimer: It’s been over 25 years, and I may not get everything right, but I’m going to do my best to be accurate, If I’m wrong about something, let me know.

I first met Sam when Born Against played a show in Waukesha, Wisconsin. The local Waukesha punks booked them to play a bowling alley. Somehow I rented the PA for the show or something. (I would have got it from Lincoln Music on the South Side.) I remember meeting Sam when setting up the mics and I said “Hey, you’re not gonna stick this mic in your mouth are you? I rented these…” and he looked at me and said “No, I’m not gonna stick it in my mouth.” and that was good enough for me. But… there was this hint of mischief when he said it, as if he was saying “I’ll tell you I won’t do it, but yeah, I’m totally gonna do it.”

Now, why the hell I would I ask him such a question? I’m pretty such I saw a photo from a zine (maybe MRR?) where he had a mic shoved in his mouth. I remember it being a great photo, but I was also concerned I’d return the gear to Bob at Lincoln Music and he’d be like “What the he’ll happened to this mic!?!”

I am reasonably sure he did not shove the mic into his mouth. It’s been a long time, and since I don’t remember, I’ll take that to mean it did not happen, because it seems like something I would remember. I’d probably have said “What the Hell, man!?! You said you wouldn’t shove the mic in your mouth!” and Sam would probably have shrugged or something.

The next interaction was in Madison, and I don’t know if this was the same Born Against tour or another one. Maybe it was a year later? (Hell, I don’t even know what year some of these things happened.) Anyway, I think we were near State Street somewhere and Sam saw me and (maybe) Milt, and said something like “Hey, do you guys have Z-Rock in this town?” and I told him we did not, but maybe WORT would work. He then asked where a laundromat was and we may have been able to point him in the right direction. Yeah, this is weird, but Sam is weird, and I am weird, so whatever. I’ve also been know to just randomly ask people if they have Z-Rock in whatever town I’m in. (I never bothered to look up Z-Rock until right now. Huh.)

And then on the Buried tour in 1993 we played in Washington D.C. at the 9:30 Club with Born Against, and it seemed like somehow there was a small crowd, or like no crowd or I just can’t remember but I do remember watching Born Against play and Sam was Sam and at some point he wandered off during a song and went into the women’s restroom and I think he came back at some point but it’s all a little hazy.

There’s one more interaction I had with Sam but it wasn’t in-person, it was across a computer network where he was asking me questions about something and I remember I felt honored that he was asking me. I’m not even sure I had any great answers for him, but now that I think about it maybe I’ve never had any great answers.

I did a search for Sam with a mic in his mouth and found this photo from ABC No Rio Fondly Recalls the Saturdays of Its Gritty Youth though I’m not even sure that’s the photo I remember seeing.

Sam also makes (or made) art, some of which I find interesting or amusing, and some that makes me worry about his sanity. See the art of Sam McPheeters, Artist.

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OctoNoise

octonoise-5573

For this year’s WMSE Art & Music event, I created a new board I call OctoNoise. It’s an eight note piano featuring capacitive touch pads, LEDs, a Teensy LC microcontroller, and some fine woodworking. This is somewhat similar to last year’s piece.

octonoise-laser

You may know me for my work with decagons, but I also work with octagons, and this pattern is known as a 16 cell and it worked well for my design which utilizes 8 touch pads and 8 LEDs.

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I’m not an amazing woodworker, but after laser cutting wood I can typically sand it, stain it, and add some polyurethane. At least it looks (somewhat) nice. I didn’t alter the bottom piece, and I just left it as a square, the way I received it from WMSE. My original design for this piece (over a year ago) was a bit different, but I wanted this to match the style of last year’s WMSE piece (and I was a bit rushed getting this done.)

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The OctoNoise features and on/off switch, which is handy because it runs on batteries. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve made electronic things for myself and not included and on/off switch. It’s nice to have one! When you turn it on the touch pads calibrate for about 5 seconds. There’s a startup sound that happens during calibration. (I added a note about that on the back of the piece.)

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There’s a “somewhat” hidden control knob on the side that ajusts the delay between notes. The way the code is written, it plays one note at a time, but you can alter that to very quickly (or slowly) oscillate between multiple notes. You can get some interesting variances in sound by turning the knob.

Note that it is difficult to turn the knob while also touching the pads to make sound. This is by design, as it’s also difficult (if not damn near impossible without using various parts of your body) to play all the notes at once. This was done to encourage collaboration and playfulness.

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Here’s a side view. The height was determined by the speaker that was chosen. Once again we’ve put the electronics on display as part of the piece rather than hide them inside an enclosure. They are mean to be celebrated! (Each wire has a label showing what it connects to, if needed.)

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Here’s the Teensy LC, which runs the code. The board has built it capacitive touch pins, which make writing the code fairly easy. The notes used are C5, D5, E5, F5, G5, A5, B5, C6. This is real piano, and you can play actual songs. I based the code on a project I did for Brown Dog Gadgets a while back. You can check out their Touch Piano on Github.

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This device also contains an built-in amp with a volume control. Again, a sometimes rare feature in the things I build. Often amps require 12 volts and that’s not always fun to deal with, but I’ve found some that work on variable voltages from 3 to 12 volts, so running them at the same voltage as a microcontroller becomes very easy.

octonoise-3d-parts

Besides all the wood and electronics, there are some 3D printed parts that pull it all together. The on/off switch, delay control, amp, and battery holder all have their own 3D printed part that they attach to and then easily attach to the wood with some #4 screws. Once again, things are left “open” to celebrate rather than hide the electronics.

octonoise-standoff

The other 3D printed pieces are the custom standoffs that raise the top piece above the bottom piece to (partially) enclose the electronics. I created a 2D profile from the original artwork used to laser etch & cut the piece to create the correct angle. I then extruded that design to make the tall standoffs and printed 8 of them.

As usual, I encourage you to check out my Instagram account if you’re interested in seeing confusing photos of these sorts of things coming together.

Oh, one thing I forgot to mention. I liked this piece so much, I made another one so I could keep one for myself. As the old saying goes “If you’re gonna make one, make two!” So I did.

Finally, here are some videos, including one showing me playing both of them at once, which might never happen again!

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WMSE Art & Music

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When I heard WMSE was doing a fundraising event called Art & Music and was looking for artists to contribute, I wanted in. I got in touch with them and got a blank 12″x12″ board. I’ve done some of these art boards before, once for The Eisner American Museum of Advertising & Design and once for a friend of mine. (And while it’s not a board, I also made this NoiseBowl last year.) Besides myself, I also managed to get most of the people I work with at Brinn Labs to make boards, and a few people at Milwaukee Makerspace also made them.

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This one is a litte more special to me though… WMSE went on the air in 1981, and while I don’t remember when I actually started listening to it (though I do have my brother to thank) I grew up with WMSE. They played the music I wanted to hear (at least on Wednesday nights when I was in high school.) They introduced me to weird and crazy stuff, and I even got to be a guest on air a few times (and they’ve managed to play a few songs from bands I was in.)

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Since I’ve been screwing around with making noise with Arduinos in sculptural form I thought I’d continue that obsession practice once again. I’ve been working on a four step sequencer for work, so that’s what this is…

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If it wasn’t for the stain and attention to fit and finish in creating this piece, it might look like some of my work you’d find inside a museum exhibit. We tend to make a lot of devices that produce sound. (We typically don’t go to great lengths to make them “pretty” though, since they always live inside cabinets and are not seen by the public.

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wmse-panel-render

Here’s the design for the one cut piece I made. It’s the control panel/user interface, which holds the power switch, potentiometers, and the LEDs. I actually used the CNC router instead of the laser cutter to make it. (Don’t ask why!) It also took some careful drill press operations to get things just right. There was also a lot of sanding involved. (Again, don’t ask.)

wmse-standoff-legs

There are some 3D printed pieces as well. The standoffs used for the speaker, and to hold the control panel in place. They are similar to ones I’ve used before and before, but of course the beauty of 3D printing is that I can change the design each time to match the speaker and hardware used. (Parametric, FTW!)

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Here’s a short video that demonstrates the noise that this thing makes. The first four knobs adjust the pitch for the four steps, with the fifth knob used to adjust tempo, and the top right knob as a volume control. The LEDs light up showing each step of the sequencer.

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I also decided when I started to build this that I really wanted one for myself. While I love seeing my artwork go out into the world, sometimes I miss it. Since I was building one, I thought it would be easy to build a second one. Well, it was (fairly) easy, but it was also time consuming. I also had this idea that if anything went wrong, I’d have a backup. Nothing really went wrong, but I did finish the one for WMSE about week before I finished the one for me.

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If you’re ever curious about the process I go through when building these sorts of things, you might want to head over to Instagram and follow me there. For instance, I posted a photo there… and another, and another, and a video

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And then I posted more, and then I probably posted even more. So yeah, Instagram tends to be my “in process” photo & video place.

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And if you’re not hip to Instagram you might find a photo or two (or three) over on Facebook. Not as much shows up there, but we’re still friends, right?

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Enjoy the show!

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Note: The piece sold for $510! I’m really pleased I was able to support WMSE with this, and I’m thankful a bunch of people liked it enough to bid on it.

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(The Making of) The Sonic Titan

The Sonic Titan

You probably remember The Sonic Titan, which had its debut at Bay View Gallery Night. The details concerning the construction of The Sonic Titan were shrouded in mystery, just a hazy cloud of unknowns, but no more! Here is the story of The Making of The Sonic Titan!

The concept for The Sonic Titan was kicking around in my head for a long time. When Neil Gershenfeld talks about making, there’s this idea of personalization, and producing products for a market of one person. The Sonic Titan may have a market of one person, myself, and I’m fine with that.

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The physical manifestation of The Sonic Titan started with this speaker cabinet I saw in the alley on my way home one night. One of my neighbors was throwing it away. I always like to build upon the detritus and waste of society, so I grabbed it.

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As an electronics nerd, I loved the giant capacitor bank circuit thingies on the back. I considered using them, but it didn’t fit the aesthetics of the piece.

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I grabbed a screwdriver, hammer, and pry bar and got to work tearing the speaker cabinet apart.

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Mmmmmm, delicious fiberglass insulation! People really knew how to DIY speaker cabinets in the olden days!

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Why not add some roofing shingles to your speaker cabinet? Glue then down with some weird industrial adhesive to keep them in place, because acoustical properties.

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I got the speaker out in one piece. I didn’t end up using this speaker, but I’ve still got it on the scrap pile for a future project.

inside-doom

A fully formed cabinet emerges! I must have forgotten to take photos of the construction process. Basically after I broke apart the cabinet I rebuilt it into the size and shape I wanted with the help of the table saw, drill, and a bunch of screws. (Oh, and there was a fun adventure with the jig saw for the speaker holes.) I also grabbed some old scrap wood my brother dropped off at my garage about two years ago. The wood had all sorts of weird slots cut into it. (Thanks, Brother!)

Anyway, the above photos shows how everything is lovingly stuffed into the cabinet. There was no careful thought or long consideration about putting things in there. It was basically “jam it in and make it fit” the whole way. Mostly.

speakers-spades

Spade terminals come in handy for this sort of thing, and I had some handy, so I used them. The speakers came from Milwaukee Makerspace, which is always full of all sorts of weird old junk. The large fender washers are actually the scrap pieces from when I drill out Aluminum boxes to make USB controllers. Reuse!

raspberry-pi

Hey look, it’s a Raspberry Pi! Yes the “Doom Box” is Linux-powered, which seems appropriate for so many reasons. But seriously, folks… I love Linux. It allows me to do things like this quickly, easily, and at a low cost. Open source is a wonderful thing.

The Raspberry Pi is secured in place by… gravity? Yeah, it’s just sitting there. It’s got a Micro USB cable for power, and a 1/8″ cable for audio out.

power-supply

There’s a 12 volt power supply, this provides power to the audio amp, and to the Raspberry Pi. Wait, the Raspberry Pi needs 5 volts, not 12 volts… what!?

buck-converter

Oh look, there’s a buck converter which takes the 12 volts and knocks it down to 5 volts. These are handy when you don’t want to have two power supplies. Just split the 12 volt power and run to the converter and you get your 5 volts. Sweet!

screw-terminals

There’s a few of these screw terminal blocks. This one feeds the 5 volts from the converter to the Micro USB cable that had one end cut off. Just use the red and black wires from the USB cable for power… no signal wires needed!

audio-amp-01

Here’s the audio amp. It’s got spade connectors all over. Two for the 12 volt power, and 4 for the two speakers. I’m pretty sure I screwed this down to the board. Oh yeah, I did, we’ll get to that later…

audio-amp-02

It’s a Pyle cheapie audio amplifier. Nothing fancy or super-loud, but I had it in the shop so I used it. The cover was removed because I had an idea to mount it right up to the front and use the integrated volume potentiometer and add my own wooden knob. That worked until I broke things…

audio-pot

…so there’s a potentiometer that got added in to replace the one I broke. And it’s not a dual pot, just a single, and probably not the right resistance. When things break and you’ve got a deadline you grab whatever you’ve got available and get things done. (At least I do, or I try to.) Wires are delicately soldered because deadline.

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Some of the greebles were put into place to cover the gaps that were created when the cabinet was built because I didn’t have quite enough wood to do it right. I call the greebles a “feature”.

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This little greeble works well to stuff the extra cables into. See, “features”!

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And this greeble closes up the gap at the bottom… (Note: hard drive magnets are great for keeping random screws in one place!)

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And over here there’s a lovely gap for the power cord to exit. Mind the gap! Use the gap! Love the gap!

Is it mere coincidence the photo above and the Dopesmoker art below share a similar color palette? Probably… or… maybe not!?!?

dopesmoker-01

Check out that stoner caravan! I hope they are enjoying their journey! They should have a Doom Box to listen to!

vinyl-mask

I used Bauhaus 93 as the typeface that came close to matching the Sleep logo I liked, and made a few pieces of vinyl which were put on the wood so I could use them as stencils and spray paint on the name and labels. I like vinyl and stencils and paint. They work well together!

Wait, wasn’t there something about Linux? Of course there was! After I had the Raspberry Pi up and running with Raspbian I added mpg123 for playing the audio:

sudo apt-get install mpg123

I then wrote a long and complex script to start the audio playing and keep it playing forever by using a loop. Here’s the long and complex script:

#!/bin/bash
mpg123 --loop -1 /home/pi/Dopesmoker.mp3

I saved that script and then set it to run after bootup by adding a call to it in the /etc/rc.local file, right before the exit line.


/bin/bash /boot/playaudio.sh
exit 0

And that’s how I built The Sonic Titan. I hope you enjoyed the journey.

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The Sonic Titan

The Sonic Titan

The Sonic Titan was created for Bay View Gallery Night in June 2016 and was displayed at Milwaukee Makerspace.

The Sonic Titan

Similar to the piece I created last year, The Sonic Titan has a musical connection, which is fitting for Bay View Gallery Night which is “A celebration of local art, music, business and community.”

The Sonic Titan

You can find out more about this device/object/thing by checking out the project page for The Sonic Titan.