Using electronic harmonization with woodwinds

In a recent recital I performed my own arrangement of Ravel’s Boléro for multiple woodwinds soloist using electronics, with piano and snare drum. I used electronics to try to approximate some of Ravel’s harmonies (and timbres), and used what in my mind are three different techniques, which I’ll try to outline here.

In performance, I used the BOSS GT-1000CORE guitar multi-effects unit to do most of the heavy lifting. I did find that it had difficulty tracking my flute playing (though, surprisingly, it did better with piccolo), so I used an Electro-Harmonix Pitch Fork + to assist with that instrument in particular. I also used a BOSS SY-200 to try to create some non-woodwind tone colors. There are plenty of other equipment options that can achieve similar effects, but you’re on your own to read the manuals.

All of this was done with a microphone rather than pickups, which was less complicated for quick instrument switches, but did make it difficult to get relatively isolated woodwind sounds into the electronics, which ultimately caused problems with the audibility of some of the electronic sounds.

The warts-and-all live performance is available on my YouTube channel, but I’ll provide some clearer, isolated examples here. For rehearsal numbers in the orchestral score, I’m referring to the Durand Edition on IMSLP.

Technique 1: parallel intervals

At rehearsal mark 8 in the score, horn and celeste play the A theme in octaves, with two piccolos playing in parallel a perfect fifth and a major tenth above the celeste’s highest octave, perhaps in imitation of a pipe organ’s mixture stop.

To achieve this harmony with electronics, I played the upper piccolo part “live,” and routed the piccolo’s sound into the GT-1000CORE where I split it into two separate signal paths. One got transposed down using a digital pitch shifter to create the second piccolo part. The other got transposed down to the melody pitch and split into octaves, then routed through the SY-200 to turn the sound into something vaguely celeste-like.

Since the intervals are strictly parallel, this is a pretty straightforward use of pitch shifting: whatever note I play on the piccolo gets transposed to the specified intervals.

Technique 2: smart harmonization

At rehearsal mark 16, a thickly-orchestrated ensemble of woodwinds, brass, and strings plays the A theme in harmony. I opted to play this portion on soprano saxophone, thickened and harmonized with a synthesized string section.

Since the harmony in this section is largely diatonic, I used the GT-1000CORE’s smart harmonizer. I added voices a diatonic fourth and diatonic sixth below in the key of G (like a first-inversion triad), which tracks with the notes in the first part of the theme. But there’s a moment in the first part that uses F-natural instead of F-sharp, and the second part of the melody uses F-naturals exclusively, so I used the unit’s footswitches to change to the key of C major as needed. I routed all of this through the SY-200 to change the three soprano saxophones into a string section sound, with the “live” soprano remaining audible in the room.

For the key switching, I set one footswitch as a “momentary” switch, so it changes the key just while I’m pressing it, and another as a “toggle” switch, so I can press and release it and the key remains changed. This gives me some helpful options for live performance.

Technique 3: smart harmonization with custom scales

The smart harmonizer works well out of the box as long as you want to use notes of a major scale (or mode thereof), but at rehearsal mark 15 Ravel’s harmonization is more complicated than that. Luckily, the GT-1000CORE supports smart harmonization with custom “scales.” What this really means is that I can tell the unit that any time I play a certain pitch, it should add one or more pitches that I can specify arbitrarily. I can add whatever pitches I like to each note of the chromatic scale.

I chose to play this section on clarinet, using the electronics to turn it into a 3-part clarinet section. During the first phrase, the melody pitches are harmonized in a consistent way: every time there’s a melody concert B-flat it’s harmonized with a G and an E, every time there’s a melody C it’s harmonized with an A and an F, every time there’s a melody E it’s harmonized with a C and a G, and so forth. I can just tell the effects unit which harmony notes to add to each melody note.

But things change in the first half of the second phrase: melody B-flat is now harmonized with G and D, and C is now harmonized with A and E. To accommodate this I have to create a second custom “scale,” and use a footswitch to activate it at the right time. To finish the second phrase requires a third scale, engaged with another footswitch.

Because of the flexibility of the custom scale system, I can recreate harmonies that use a variety of intervals. With a little analysis I can figure out where the scale changes need to be (basically anywhere a given melody pitch is harmonized in a new way).

Additional thoughts

There are some limitations to using pitch shifters and harmonizers, depending on your equipment. Each virtual pitch shifter and harmonizer in the GT-1000CORE can only add two voices, though by (virtually) splitting the audio signal into multiple paths and passing each through its own shifter/harmonizer I can build thicker chords.

When trying to reproduce specific harmonies written by a composer, there may be some decisions to make to balance accuracy with practicality. Serendipitously, most of Ravel’s harmony translated fairly easily to the effects unit’s capabilities. But there were a few spots where I decided that certain chord voicings were close enough, and that I didn’t need to complicate things with one more custom scale plus the corresponding onstage footwork.

As I’ve mentioned previously, I’m more interested in electronic effects that give my woodwinds new capabilities, like polyphony, than in just adding some distortion or echo (though those are also fun). Enjoy!

Recital videos, August 2023

I’m pleased to share videos from my recent Delta State University faculty recital.

Experiments with electric woodwinds

I’ve been having fun with woodwinds enhanced with pickups or microphones. (If you’re interested in natively-electronic instruments like wind controllers, I’ve written about those elsewhere.)

I still have a lot to learn about working with electronics. But here are a few observations in case anyone finds them helpful.

Which instrument(s) to use? I find lower-pitched instruments to be more fun, since they can provide convincing bass lines. Electronics can pitch a high instrument down, of course, but I haven’t had the success I would like making this sound good. So far I’ve installed pickups into a bassoon bocal, a bass clarinet neck, and an English horn bocal. I’ve used microphones for other instruments.

Which gadgets to use? I’m personally using the Little-Jake pickups, a looper, and a multi-effects unit. When I started getting into effects pedals, I found it alarmingly easy to accumulate quite a few. This was a good and inexpensive way to get started. But I quickly discovered that it was becoming unwieldy to try use use more than a few in performance (I literally had to walk back and forth across the stage to get to them all). A multi-effects unit turned out to be much more practical, with a few foot switches I can configure to operate a large number of effects. (I’m currently using one by Boss.) It takes a little more advance setup than individual pedals, but greatly simplifies the onstage footwork. And I was pretty easily able to sell off the individual pedals to fund the purchase.

Which effects to use? I think the best-known guitar-type effects are distortion, delay/echo, and reverb. Those are fun to play with, but I’ve become more interested in ones I can use to give my instruments new capabilities, rather than just give their sounds a little grittiness or echo. For example, smart harmonizers (which add harmony lines based on a selected key) and pitch shifters (which add harmony lines based on selected intervals) make my instruments polyphonic, a significant upgrade for a woodwind player. And a looper, or even a cleverly-used delay, can create counterpoint.

Here are a few examples of my experiments:

There are eight audio tracks here, but each one is performed “live.” I’m trying to somewhat replicate sounds from the original song: two vocal parts, two guitars, piano, electric piano, and electric bass, plus various synthesizer lines that I’ve consolidated into one. I’m using harmonizers and pitch shifters on the “guitars” and “keyboards” to perform chords in real time. I’m also pitch shifting the “bass” to let the English horn play much lower than its natural range.
I’m using a harmonizer here similarly to how I used it in the English horn video, but you can get a better view of what that involves footwork-wise. I’m using several carefully-programmed footswitches to change the harmonizer’s parameters as I go, in order to get the chromatic harmony that I want. On the A sections of the tune, I’m also using a pitch shifter to double the melody up an octave. The separate bass part that starts at about 0:28 uses pitch shift to drop the sound down an octave.
This is an example of using a looper (the red unit) to layer multiple lines, while using the multi-effects unit (black) to do real-time harmony and some other things. The “bass” part, shifted down two octaves, isn’t as convincing as I would like (you may have to use earphones to hear it).
Here’s a live-performance example using looper plus multi-effects unit.
Here I’m using the multi-effects unit to perform the melody “call” and harmonized “response” (unfortunately distorted and too soft), and using the looper to provide backing for an improvised solo.
Here’s an attempt to replicate one of Paul Hanson’s incredible electric bassoon “hocket” performances (I fell a bit short). The technique uses a delay to create a single well-timed echo, with the result being that I’m only playing every other note you hear; the in-between notes are echoes of previously-played ones. To get the full effect, check out Paul’s video.
This one you can actually buy sheet music for; the arranger, Melissa Keeling, provides parameters for using a harmonizer and a delay (which could be separate pedals or functions of a multi-effects unit).

Recital videos, August 2021

I’m pleased to share videos from my recent Delta State University faculty recital. I performed for a reduced in-person audience due to COVID-19 precautions.

All the repertoire involves electronics of some kind: prerecorded tracks, a looper, an actual electronic instrument (the Akai EWI), and/or live signal processing. This was my first time doing something so electronics-intensive, and I was learning to use some new equipment, so I’m including here some videos from the live recital and some from a dress rehearsal depending on audio quality, etc. (You will still notice some distortion and other issues, which I’m learning from and hoping to improve in future performances.)

Recital videos, August 2020

I’m pleased to share videos from my recent Delta State University faculty recital. I performed for a very small in-person audience due to COVID-19 precautions.

All the repertoire is unaccompanied. The program begins with multiple-woodwinds repertoire by Samuel Adler, Kyle Tieman-Strauss, and Nicole Chamberlain (a world premiere of a commissioned piece), followed by some odds and ends on recorders, clarinet, and tinwhistles.

A minimal Little-Jake electric bassoon setup

Be sure to check out my recent interview with Trent Jacobs, the inventor of the Little-Jake bassoon/woodwind pickup.

During the past year I got myself a Little-Jake to experiment with some electrified bassoon playing. I didn’t know much about using electronics in this way, and it took some research and trial-and-error to figure out exactly what I needed to use the Little-Jake with my bassoon. I thought others might find it useful to see that information all in one place. Here’s a kind of minimum setup:

  • A bocal that you’re willing to have altered. I had an old one that I liked but wasn’t using much.
  • The bocal needs a small hole drilled in it and an adapter soldered to it. A skilled instrument technician can probably make you an adapter from scratch, or you can buy one pre-made. Forrests Music has one, and so does Midwest Musical Imports. I bought Forrests’s (cheaper) version, plus the threaded plug in case I want to use the bocal without the Little-Jake. I shipped my bocal to Forrests and they installed the adapter for a very reasonable fee.

    Brass adapter visible just above whisper key pip

    Adapter with plug
  • The Little-Jake pickup. It’s a thin cable with a 1/4″ plug on one end, and a little threaded connector on the other. The threaded end connects to the adapter on your bocal.
  • A preamp. The 1/4″ end of the Little-Jake connects to the preamp’s input jack. The preamp works some electrical magic to get the electronic “signal” ready for amplification. You can buy an inexpensive one made from an Altoids tin, or this L. R. Baggs one that Trent recommends, or there are other options if you know what you’re doing. The L. R. Baggs is handy because it clips to your belt and provides a volume control.
  • An audio cable, like the ones used for electric guitars. One end plugs into your preamp’s output jack.
  • An amplifier. The other end of the audio cable plugs into an input jack on the amplifier. There are many options at many price points. I use a small Mackie PA system for practicing or small venues, or a keyboard amplifier if I need more volume. Keyboard amps and PA systems are usually designed for a relatively “clean,” unaltered sound, whereas guitar amps tend to add their own character. This is a personal choice depending on what you want to sound like, but for me the keyboard/PA-type amp seemed to make sense as a starting point.

Assembled system: bocal → Little-Jake → preamp → audio cable → amplifier (in this case, a small PA system)

That’s enough to start making some fun sounds, but refer to Trent’s interview and an article on his website for some thoughts on adding effects pedals, which really make things interesting.

My current pedalboard setup

The Little-Jake can be used for some other instruments, as well, with the same setup (except the adapter must be attached to a saxophone or bass clarinet neck, clarinet barrel, etc.).

Interview: bassoonist and inventor Trent Jacobs

Last summer I finally got myself a Little-Jake setup so I could experiment with some electric bassoon playing. The inventor of the Little-Jake, Trent Jacobs, is a performer, educator, and reedmaker, and I’ve linked to his blog posts on a number of occasions.

Trent was kind enough to answer a few questions about himself and about the Little-Jake.

Tell us in a nutshell about yourself and your career.

I have a bachelor of music degree from the Lawrence University Conservatory of Music, and Masters and DMA degrees from the University of Illinois. My primary teachers were Monte Perkins and Timothy McGovern. I moved to Minneapolis in 2009 where I started work at Midwest Musical Imports, and began freelancing and teaching as much as I could around the full time job. In about 2010 I started making reeds commercially under the Weasel Reeds brand, which grew significantly over the years. I started teaching bassoon and music theory at the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire in fall of 2015 and left MMI shortly after. I now teach there and in my studio in Minneapolis, continue with the reed making business, help in raising my two children (which includes Suzuki violin lessons), and freelance when I’m able.

What is the “Little-Jake?”

The Little-Jake is a small and inexpensive wind instrument pickup, designed to mount directly to the bocal of the bassoon or similar location on other woodwinds. It gets the name from a nickname I had when I was a little boy. My fathers friends called him “Jake” as short for Jacobs so when I was around I was “little Jake” while he was “big Jake.”

What was the impetus for creating it?

In about 2005 while I was working on my DMA, I started working out that my thesis/project would be somehow related to jazz bassoon. Years prior I was a pretty competent jazz guitarist, but didn’t ever translate that to bassoon much, and never improvised on bassoon until then. So when pursuing jazz bassoon in all facets I encountered (again) the music of Paul Hanson, and his electric bassoon playing.

If you know anything about Paul’s setup at that time, you’ll know he was using a pickup that was no longer being made or serviced by the inventor, and was an unusual piece of gear with odd technical requirements. The only thing on the market available to anyone else was actually a control booth earpiece that functioned as a microphone well enough when fit to a bocal (the Telex pickup).

I was curious about it and happened to have a third-hand connection with Mark Ortwein at the time, and I knew he had a Telex setup which he let me borrow. It worked, but I was rather unimpressed with the sound quality I could get through my guitar amp and pedals, so I set out to make something I liked better. Quite a few dozen experimental pieces later I had a prototype I was close to happy with, that worked with the Telex fitting.

What kind of background or skills did you have that made it possible?

It’s rather embarrassing to say, but the first skill needed in making something like this is soldering, which I learned by modifying gaming consoles to play homebrew software. I had learned to do that with some tutorial videos on the internet and had made a few small electronics projects so I had some idea what I was doing. I also got some help from the guy that makes the Altoids box preamps that are now commonly bundled with the Little Jake in the technical aspects of circuit building.

Most of the construction of them isn’t all that different from bassoon reed making in my mind. Small pieces have to be fit together in a precise way, it’s just that the tools and pieces are a bit different. The hardest thing in the early days was getting a good connection with the existing Telex pickup bocal adapter being made by Forrests Music. I was fortunate enough to have a colleague in the bassoon studio at the University of Illinois who was an architecture major and had access to CAD and acrylic laser cutting machines. He helped me prototype and get working pieces to allow for a solid connection.

Eventually I switched everything over to a threaded/screw adapter like what Paul Hanson was using with his FRAP pickups, so he could use my pickups with his existing equipment. That is the only way I make the pickups now.

What instruments are people using the Little Jake with? Are there others that it theoretically would work with?

I’ve seen them used on clarinet and saxophone, although not too much. Nearly any woodwind instrument is possible, as long as the player is willing to drill a hole where it’s needed. Clarinet is best done in the barrel, which is easy. Saxophone could use the mouthpiece but the neck is better, similar to the bocal mount for the bassoon. English horn could be done on the bocal but it’s fine work and I don’t know of anyone that’s actually gone there.

Flute is the one that’s not really necessary, as there are plenty of high quality microphone systems for flute that would be ultimately superior to the sound you could get with the Little Jake anyway, but there is a way to modify a Little Jake and a headjoint of a flute to make it work together. A lot of work and the sound wouldn’t be as good as a commercially available flute mic at the lip plate anyway.

Oboe is the toughest sell: you have to drill a hole at about where the third octave key is on the top joint. Most oboists aren’t willing to sacrifice a top joint to electrify the oboe, so I don’t think it’s been done. Paul McCandless has done it in the past with a FRAP, but I don’t think anyone else ever has.

I’m sure there are non-western instruments that it’d work with as well, as long as there’s a place to drill the hole.

Have you seen any uses of the Little Jake that you found especially surprising?

I’m just always surprised when I find a bassoonist using it and enjoying it in a rock band setting. I’ve had people send me recordings over the years and it’s pretty cool to see something you’ve created being used in contexts you wouldn’t yourself be in. I was blown away when I discovered a band in Iceland that had a bassoonist using a Little Jake.

Obviously using a Little Jake opens up a whole rabbit hole of new gear to buy, but what is a good minimum setup that, say, a bassoonist needs just to try out some electric playing?

The amp is the most important second piece of equipment. The goal of using a pickup with a bassoon is to get the sound space into a place that can be heard even when there are drums involved. When putting together a guitar rig, as an example, the guitar is only half of the sound; the other half of the sound is the amplifier. Ask any guitar player, the amp is absolutely critical when getting the tone you want. All the pedals and stuff you can put between the instrument and amp are just extras. So it’s really important to get an amp that gets you the sound you want at a volume appropriate for what you’re doing. I’ve settled on a really high end acoustic guitar amp, but in the past I’ve used bass guitar amps, powered PA speakers, and guitar amplifiers. It all depends on what kind of sound you want. You can get a good amp used for $100 or less.

For someone who already has that minimum setup, what are the next few things to consider buying?

If you don’t know anything about effects pedals, one of the simple and small multi-effect units for guitar or bass guitar are a good starting point. You can experiment with lots of different types of effects and decide what you like to use before investing in more specialized gear. Those multi-effect units can sometimes be found for $50 if you get a good Craigslist deal.

If you know what kinds of effects you like, you can get dedicated pedals that do that one thing really well. I find that a lot of things respond differently to bassoon than to electric guitar (which is what these things are designed for) so you really have to try things out before you spend the money. It’s always fun to take your bassoon out in a guitar store and start playing through pedals. The people in those shops love it! I also really highly suggest effects units designed with vocalists in mind. A voice or wind instrument is more similar to a bassoon than an electric guitar is. I personally use a lot of pitch shifting effects, modulation effects (phaser, chorus, etc.), and time based effects like delay/echo and reverb. I don’t really use distortion all that much unless I’m really trying to sound like another guitar player in the same band. The other thing that’s always sure to turn heads is an Envelope Filter (sometimes called auto-wah but that’s not really correct). That’s the effect that makes your instrument have that “quack” or “wah” sound when you articulate.

What surprises or challenges do people run into when electrifying their instruments for the first time?

Feedback is probably the biggest issue with amplifying an acoustic instrument. Feedback is where the sound from the amplifier or speaker is picked up by the microphone, which creates an audio loop that quickly becomes very loud and usually very high pitched. Acoustic instruments have more problems with this because they themselves are a bit of an amplifying chamber that can pick up the sound of the speakers. You have to learn what effects and volume levels will create that feedback with your own setups and be ready with a plan to control them (be always close to a volume knob that you can zero out if it gets really bad).

Do you have any favorite bassoon- (or woodwind-) playing tips?

Don’t play on crap reeds. Life is too short. Practice your damned scales and long tones. Take good care of your equipment: regular instrument maintenance with a specialist on that instrument, store things properly, clean them regularly, buy appropriate cases or covers or whatever to keep things protected. Don’t swing stuff around carelessly. Swab your horn. Especially in my years at MMI I was frequently amazed at how poorly some people, even professionals, took care of their gear. If you’re playing a bassoon at a night club you’d best know that you have the single most expensive piece of equipment in the band probably, and nobody knows it or cares, so watch out for your own stuff.

Would you like to share anything about your recent medical history?

In May of 2017 I was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. I underwent 9 weeks of chemotherapy and in early November had surgery to remove the tumor, which involved also removing my entire stomach and a portion of my esophagus. I finished 9 more weeks of chemotherapy after the surgery and have started playing again, but I still have a long road to recovery and learning to live without a stomach. I have started teaching and working again and so far things are looking good for my healing. We will do regular scans and hopefully find nothing.

I found that some side effects of chemo prevented me from making reeds as much as I was used to, and generally being fatigued kept me from playing as much as I wanted. I obviously had to turn down quite a few calls for gigs. I’m fortunate to have a good health insurance plan through my university and have some of the best doctors in the world working on me, so while my income has suffered I have a good safety net. I expect to be in full production of bassoon reeds again in the spring of 2018, so if anyone wants to be notified when I have reeds ready to go again, send a message to me through my website.

Thanks Trent!

Check out a couple of Trent’s performing groups:

And of course his website: Trent Jacobs, bassoonist

Jazz recital videos, August 2017

This year I played all jazz at my Delta State University faculty recital. Program and some selected videos are below.

I’m very much a part-time jazz player, so it was fun to spend the summer trying to get my chops in shape to play tunes in a variety of styles on a variety of instruments. This was my new record for number of instruments on a recital: flute, oboe, clarinet, bass clarinet, bassoon (electric bassoon), soprano/alto/tenor saxophones, and EWI, 9 in all. I’ve written previously about the challenges of improvising on multiple instruments, which I suspect might be surprising to non-doublers or non-improvisers.

An additional challenge is that I live in a small town in an isolated area, so I had to bring in some rhythm section players from out of town and rehearsal time was extremely limited. Enjoy the videos warts and all.

I have previously done some things with bassoon and electronics, but I took that to a new level this time around with a Little Jake pickup and a few new effects pedals. This was lots of fun and I’m already brainstorming how I can use the Little Jake with some other instruments.

The pedalboard setup I used for electric bassoon and EWI



New sound clips: Faculty woodwinds recital, Sep. 13, 2012

Here are some sound clips from my faculty recital last month. I try to make a point of keeping myself challenged, and mission accomplished on this one.

The repertoire, selected collaboratively with my outstanding pianist colleague Dr. Kumiko Shimizu, was all pieces with some connection to jazz music. First up on the program was selected movements from Claude Bolling’s Suite for Flute and Jazz Piano. Flute isn’t part of my teaching assignment at Delta State, but this piece was too fun to pass up and my flutist colleague Dr. Shelley Collins is extraordinarily supportive of my flute playing. Since I spend most of my work week living in reed land, however, my flute chops don’t get the attention I would like, and I’m a bit self-conscious about my sound and my control of the instrument. I hear a number of things on the recording that I am less than satisfied with, but overall I think it went okay, and it was well received by the audience (even the part of the audience whose grade doesn’t depend on keeping me happy).

Next was a new-ish piece by young composer Alyssa Morris, a fellow BYU alum. I had heard her Four Personalities for oboe and piano performed by Nancy Ambrose King a few years back at an IDRS conference, and it immediately sprang to mind when I started brainstorming jazz-influenced oboe pieces. We performed the first two movements (second, then first), which, to our ears, had the strongest jazz elements. The first movement (performed second) in particular has characteristic swing rhythms and figures, and it was strange but fun to tackle those things on the oboe.

At the John Mack Oboe Camp over the summer, I heard a fine performance of this piece by the Oregon Symphony’s principal oboist, Martin Hebert. I also got some reed help from Linda Strommen (of Indiana University), which has greatly improved the pitch stability of my reeds. I’m pleased with the improvement over last year’s recital. I’m not sure I have entirely adapted tone-wise to the change, however, and I was a little surprised by my sound on the recording—to me, I don’t quite sound like me.

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