HOW TO BUILD A BETTER MOUTH TRAP
For a one-man band, DIY isn’t a weekend indulgence, it’s a mantra to live by. Beardyman walks us through his quixotic musical quest from beatboxer to instrument curator. Turns out a big mouth will only get you so far…
Story: Andrew Bencina
Darren Foreman earned his stripes when he won back-to-back UK Beatbox Championship titles in 2006-07, but more importantly gained a creative identity for something he’d always been — a vocal chameleon with a pathological fixation on the structure of sound and music.
“I had a stammer when I was three,” said Foreman. “It wasn’t that I had the compulsion to say the words again, it was that I needed to explore different ways of saying each phoneme — I couldn’t decide which way was the best. I remember saying ‘eye’ and thinking, “Hang on; ‘ahh’ turns into ‘eee’. How does it get there?
AHHHHHEEEHHHHEEEARRREERRRHEEE’. Does it pass through all of them? Does it do it faster or slower? What’s the curve?” I remember thinking this stuff and it came out as a stammer. I was a weird kid!”
With more than a pinch of the stand-up comedian, Foreman’s more familiar Beardyman persona has funny-walked the line between novelty and music artist — people were naturally drawn to his Kitchen Diaries YouTube experiment, which went viral almost immediately.
While it might have been easier to trace his childhood debt to Police Academy’s Michael Winslow, it’s his religious devotion to often-overlooked composer and synthesiser pioneer Raymond Scott (mentor to Bob Moog and inventor of the analogue sequencer) that is far more revealing of the musician behind the mouth. “Scott is my spiritual hero,” eulogised Foreman. “I have a little plastic figurine of him that sits on top of one of my speakers. Any time it falls off I feel like I’ve dropped a sacred relic. He had this unachievable dream of being able to sit on a chair in front of an audience, place electrodes on his head, and just let everyone hear the music inside.”
Funnily enough, Scott’s fantasy comes pretty close to how Foreman has always made music. He may not have cracked the critical psychic bridge converter (yet) but a microphone, his mouth and a fertile musical mind have taken him a long way. Like Scott’s imaginary ideal, it’s always just been a question of speed; not from studio to master, but from brain directly to audience.
“I can produce close approximations of any noise I want with my mouth,” reckons Foreman. “I can think of and perform them instantly, without ever having to page between presets. From there it’s just a case of finding a faster way of putting all the ideas together. I knew you could overdub notes into a MIDI file, or layer sound on top of itself on a tape machine, but the lightbulb moment for me was when I discovered loopers.
“I was listening to dance music and it was just one thing added to another, then one part dubbed out, and another taken away with some simple filtering. I thought it should be achievable live with a small collection of loopers, but as far as I knew I was out there on my own.
“Soon after, I was holidaying in Graz, Austria, and found myself deep in a side cave burrowed into a mountain in the middle of the city. There, with stalactites and water dripping from the ceiling, was Tim Exile and his Mark 1 Reaktor beast. It was mental. He was creating the most insane breakcore I’d ever heard and in a way that sounded so organic. So I pushed my way to the front. Everyone else was going crazy and I’m behind the rig staring and thinking, ‘This is just the coolest thing I’ve ever seen!’
“I’ve never made any secret of how much I’ve been influenced by Tim. He’s very much my mentor in terms of that dogged determination to build the instrument of your dreams. Almost every instrument has been built by a musician who couldn’t quite achieve what they wanted. You can’t separate the musical inventor from the musician.”
What followed this euphoric moment of inspiration has been a difficult and drawn-out gestation for an instrument light-heartedly christened the Beardytron. Foreman: “From the start I knew that computers were evil; a gateway to a world of chaos and despair. I really wanted to stay the hell away from software.”
As a result the infant Beardytron was more Frankenstein’s monster than Stradavari. The earliest incarnation relied upon the Looperlative LP1 rackmount looper and external MIDI controllers. Despite a heavy price tag and impressive functionality, the boutique solution never played well with its controllers. As newer mass-market products became available, a modular system evolved. The Korg Kaoss Pad and later the Kaoss Pad 2 were combined with a Line6 DL4 and Boss RC-20 to maximise the number of looping layers, the length of possible loops, and the different ways these loops could be manipulated.
Foreman: “You could do some interesting stuff, but there was no sync between anything. Then the Kaoss Pad 3 came out and I instantly recognised its potential as a micro looping workstation. So I bought one, and then two… and then three, only to realise that having three things in series meant that you had to constantly work from the end back to the beginning. I added a TC Electronic Studio Konnekt 48, which I used standalone for its DSP and routing capabilities, and yet another Kaoss pad. I did a lot of iterating on the structure of the signal path until I found something that really worked.”
By the end of the cycle Foreman had also added a large rackmount MIDI splitter, a Kaossillator, a Korg MicroKorg XL keyboard, some other pedal effects and a tour manager to help lug around the two large flight cases of gear and cabling.
Foreman: “The Beardytron MkI was a workstation made up of lots of MIDI controlled, MIDI synced, off-the-shelf hardware… and it sucked! You could just about do a really impressive hour with it, but there would be points where the technology was letting me down. I was still relying on cover versions to provide that moment of lift for the crowd when my technology just wasn’t impressive any more.”
CHAOS & DESPAIR
Foreman: “In the background to all this, I’d bought a Windows laptop and downloaded Circular Labs Mobius. For several years, from 2008, I desperately worked at home trying to get Mobius to work inside Plogue Bidule with a MIDI controller, in such a way that it would be useful to me. I was going to use two computers and a Lemur touchscreen controller, maybe two, and a bunch of MIDI button boards — of which there were still only a few on the market.
“It was only six years ago, and yet there was much less available. There was no iPad and no iPad apps. No huge ecosystem of apps specifically designed to control things. The Lemur was very expensive and so I was always trying to find people who used it and could help me script for the thing. I was committed to Mobius, but even if I stabilised the rig, I couldn’t individually record out all the different loop layers. I was getting really pissed off with my life, the music I was making and the equipment I was trying to use to make it. I had taken three to four months off from touring with the Beardytron MkI just to work on this new setup. I’d say, “I am going to get this done this time!” In the end I realised it wasn’t a special computer I needed, or different equipment, it was coding nous.
“I was out of my depth and started to search for a mentor. I found Sebastian Lexer, one of the best Max/MSP guys around. Sebastian lectures in Max and interface engineering at Goldmiths University and is an avant-garde composer in his own right. He used to tell his students, ‘the first rule of this class is do not try and make a looper. Everyone always wants to make a looper in Max, but don’t try it!’ Then for some reason, he met me and decided to try and make a looper — I guess he wanted see if it was actually possible.
“I wrote a detailed spec and we spent the next three years working on it. Within that time, the iPad came out, the Novation LaunchPad was released and there were more solutions for controlling things in different ways. There were already so many iterations of my setup no one had ever seen, and I was facing the unbearable possibility that it might be happening again. We’d successfully fulfilled the looper spec and things seemed stable but when we tried to implement the effects part of the system it just wouldn’t work.
“Around this time, Sugarbytes released the Turnado plug-in. I realised straight away it was going to be a really lightweight CPU option to achieve an all-in-one multi-effects solution. Its linear morphing mechanism gave it a unique structure of control and made it very easy to change many parameters on the fly. Unfortunately, once we inserted a number of instances of Turnado into the Max patch, it broke. Seb tried some really innovative solutions that should have worked but we only succeeded in uncovering shortcomings in Max that Cycling74 were quite ashamed of. Once again, while my R&D had developed working prototypes for my techniques the third-party solution failed to accommodate the degree of compositional complexity I was imagining. It was really at that point I snapped.
“Looking back, I could have kept the Looperlative setup from four years previous, and just found a different controller. I didn’t know until much later that the fault lay with the particular Novation MIDI controller sending erroneous NRPN messages. I could have tried to use Mobius within Max, or even kept my new Max looper environment and developed a custom audio engine to run within it. While making my first album [I Done A Album, 2011], with Emre Ramazanoglu, we even put together the world’s most insane Ableton Live rig, made of LaunchPads and an Akai APC40. However, with the best will in the world, we just couldn’t get it to work. The native looper didn’t allow for the impact of plug-in delay compensation. Every time you’d overdub to your loop you simply missed the mark. All of these options had possibilities but either lacked the CPU efficiency or compositional flexibility I was chasing. It felt like we could always achieve something with hard work, but that something was falling short of the music in my head.”
NOT LONG… MONTH OR SO
Foreman: “In the end, I decided I had to have the whole thing coded as a standalone application in C. I approached a friend of a friend, Dave Gamble, and pleaded with him to work with me. Dave is an uncommon maths genius who thinks in code. He makes some of the most incredible DSP stuff in the world [DMG Audio]. Luckily, he’d been a fan, liked what I did and thought it’d be fun. He thought it’d only take a couple of weeks to make the looping engine which was music to my ears. I said, ‘Wow! That’s brilliant. Knock us one up then would you?’ He coded something up in C and after a couple of iterations it worked. So then I asked, ‘How hard would it be for you to make an iPad controller app and house this looping engine in something that could also host VSTs?’ He said, ‘Not long… a month or so.’
“In retrospect, we both cringe at his time estimate because it ended up taking six or seven months of his life. It was all very well Dave doing this stuff for me but that wasn’t his dream, it was mine. He’d begun to sway from his true calling, making some of the greatest DSP algorithms that have ever been created, and all I was offering was an infinite hole of development. I had to reach out to more people, but it took a long time because good C++ coders are very rare and generally like to work for themselves. After a desperate and fruitless search, Angus, who runs FXPansion, directed me to a couple of people he knew who really saved the project over the last 12 months. If you don’t include Sebastian Lexer and his assistant, there have now been a team of six people who’ve worked on this generation of the Beardytron.
“In my situation, I’m reliant on coding geniuses to help remove creative barriers. It would be better if I was the person who was changing things on Max. But for me, Max is every bit as difficult as coding in C++. If I want to get more features put into this thing it’s always going to cost me. There’s a Japanese aesthetic theory that says, ‘Nothing lasts. Nothing is perfect. Nothing is ever finished.’ It’s very tempting to endlessly refine to achieve incremental increases in stability, but if the show isn’t good it doesn’t matter. I’d sooner it crashes halfway through a show, and I was doing amazing things. That’s clearly bad project management, but I’m just here to realise my musical dreams.
“While what we’ve achieved feels unprecedented, I’m not alone. The brilliant Imogen Heap has spent orders of magnitude more than me on her development team. I’m in awe of her drive and determination. People like Tim Exile continue to use far more sophisticated granulation and audio processing and there’s a guy called Onyx Ashanti, who is off-the-scale Sun Ra-mental. He’s got a 3D printer and crazy ideas and is working with this fractal synthesis rig that he made himself in Pure Data. He’s turned himself into a cyborg.
“People like Tim and Onyx Ashanti are geniuses, utter geniuses; but they are encumbered by having no division of labour. I have to remember that the Beardytron is a song-writing tool, that’s why I made it. It exists so I can let my ideas flow freely. Every single track on my new album was started on the Beardytron. The more you can get done in that moment — when your brain is exploring the narrative path it’s on — the better. When the music stops you come back to earth. You blink, look around… and you’re home. You can’t get back where you were.”
While the battle to build the Beardytron 5000 MarkII has been a testing and very expensive quest, Darren hasn’t run out of windmills at which to tilt. For him, configuring custom instruments isn’t a future for the few mad enough to indulge their creative dreams, it’s the present for all of us.
Foreman: “Any time anyone performs with Ableton they’ve built their own instrument because as it comes, Live is just a blank canvas. People now have Pure Data, AudioMulch, Plogue Bidule, Max, Max for Live, Ableton, BitWig and even SynthEdit. There are so many controllers available and there’ll only be more interesting and esoteric options to come; especially with the iPad. Music technology is just such a fertile area. The rate of change in material science is increasing apace and when all it takes is code and a few decent controllers to completely change what’s attainable. The possibilities are limitless.