Presonus HP4 modifications

This was my first major modification project, something I’ve been meaning to post about for the last couple of years––it’s morphed over time, I’ve added and removed components as I learned from other projects. The Presonus HP4 is an excellent and powerful headphone amp, and can be found for cheap on Ebay, Reverb, etc. I think I bought this one for about $20 because was missing its power supply or something. Sounds great stock, delivering a whopping 130mW of power to each channel, and there are two designs that I’ve seen: an older version (the one I have), pictured first, which uses six quad MC33079 op amps (DIP package), two for the input and monitor output buffers, and one for each channel (two op amps paralleled per channel)…

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Below, the newer version with four quad MC33079 (SMD), two again for the input/output, two for gain stages to headphone amps, and a discrete transistor stage to drive headphone current (I don’t know what the transistors are, so there’s no accounting for noise performance, etc.). Not my picture, taken from this thread:img_3902_edit

The MC33079 is fine, old design meant for audio. Like I said, this thing sounds good already, it doesn’t need help… but OBVIOUSLY I had to find out for sure!

Anyway, I was inspired by this thread, where someone modded the newer version.

Stock capacitors are all cheap Chang caps: 47uF/35V bipolar at the input and monitor output; 1000uF/25V and 47uF/25V in the power supply; and (at least in my older version) local bypass caps in the headphone amp section, 10uF/25V on the power rails (+/- 15V!) and a 470uF/25V cap on each channel that seems to decouple headphone ground from main amplifier ground.

Replaced the input and output bipolars with 47uF Panasonic SU-A, bypassed on the other side of the board with WIMA MKP 0.47uF (0.1uF would be fine). Because the original chips were DIP, I took the opportunity to design and order some custom dual soic to DIP adapters (which I believe anyone can order as such from Aisler), replacing input buffer with OPA1612. I could have used OPA1642 as well, and perhaps it might have been preferred; there is some justification for a FET-input op amp like this in the input buffer position since the input impedance is 10kohms. This chart from TI demonstrates why, having to do with voltage noise versus current noise. Using OPA1612 was maybe an unnecessary expense, but it sounds great all the same.

I soldered four 100uF/16V Nichicon R7 organic polymer caps to either side of the 0.1uF ceramic bypass caps already installed around the input/output buffers, just to offer some more isolation from the power supply. Note the orientation. These caps have extremely low inherent resistance (ESR) and can deliver current very quickly to the op amps when needed.

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In the headphone stage I used my soic/DIP adapters again, installing two OPA1688 chips per channel. A relatively new design from 2015, the 1688 is designed for headphones (esp. mobile applications like portable DACs, hi-end smartphone amps), putting out 75mA of current per channel, meaning paralleled as they are here each headphone channel is getting 150mA. Excellent specs overall, very low THD, etc. You could use other more exotic op amps here with crazy bandwidth and warp speed slew rates, but honestly for headphones there isn’t any need, and in fact there can be significantly diminishing (or negated) returns if you put the wrong op amp in the wrong circuit. This offers a classic and realistic explanation of all this stuff. I think the OPA1688 sounds great and plenty transparent enough for reference use: RME’s ADI-2 Pro uses six of these in each headphone amp, three in parallel per channel.

img_0147More power supply decoupling on each channel, originally 10uF/25V, now 100uF/16V Nichicon R7 which barely fit (also added 0.1uF ceramics on underside of board––Presonus omitted this in their design, which is strange, since this is standard practice). Ground decoupling (big cap in center) is Panasonic FC, 470uF/25V––probably could be anything, doesn’t really touch anything other than ground, essentially isolating amp ground from headphone ground. Also pulled original resistors on either side of op amps, originally 120 ohms each (the old standard for headphone outputs), and replaced with 1 ohm resistors. Some resistance is necessary to isolate op amps from capacitive load of headphone cable to avoid oscillation, plus as short circuit protection, but lowering output impedance will make these amps more usable for low impedance drivers like IECs and earbuds. General guideline is to have 8-10x lower output impedance (amplifier) than input impedance (headphone) to avoid any wonky distortions in frequency response––in other words, amp with 4 ohm output impedance shouldn’t drive any lower than 30 ohm headphones, 38 ohm amp no less than 300 ohm headphones, etc. Presonus says HP4’s output impedance is 51 ohms, meaning 400 ohm cans and above will be linear and anything below that will have lumps and bumps in the frequency response. You can read about this here.

Very simple PSU, two regulators, 7815 and 7915, 1000uF/25V and 47uF/25V per rail, used Panasonic FC, but again probably could have used most anything modern and reliable (low ESR, high heat tolerance, e.g. 105ºC)––Nichicon, Panasonic, United Chemi-con, etc. Hot-glued caps together because tall ones were wiggling around a bit.img_0148

And finally the underside, showing WIMA MKP bypass caps and ceramic 0.1uF decoupling. img_0149

The whole shebang!img_0151

Like I said, this amp is already a great deal, and these modifications really open it up because the basic elements of the design are very good. The sound is clear, clean, vanishingly quiet, incredible separation and clarity of voices, amazing perceived sense of space around and behind my head (listening with HD600), and absolutely no apparent personality of its own. What comes in is what comes out. The OPA1688 sounds spacious, if I were to put a word to it.

(6) 47uF/35V Panasonic SU-A ($0.63/ea)

(6) WIMA MKP 0.47uF (or 0.1uF) ($0.29/ea)

(2) 1000uF/25V Panasonic FC ($0.79/ea)

(2) 47uF/25V Panasonic FC ($0.29/ea)

(4) 470uF/25V Panasonic FC ($0.60/ea)

(12) 100uF/16V Nichicon R7 (or other low ESR organic polymer) ($0.72/ea)

(8) 0.1uF/100V ceramic capacitor ($0.49/ea)

(6) dual SOIC to DIP14 adapter boards (~$10 + shipping, maybe $20 total, so worth getting a bunch in one order)

(4) OPA1612 ($6.41/ea) [or OPA1642 ($2.08/ea)]

(8) OPA1688 ($1.56/ea)

(16) 1 ohm 1% 1/4W metal film resistors ($0.18/ea)

Total = about $80 with shipping and taxes (here’s a Mouser project for anyone who is interested). Again, that’s for this older version with 6 quad op amps. If you modify the newer version it’ll probably be about half that, since you won’t need the adapter boards and fewer capacitors (anyway, I added the four extra for PSU bypass at the input/output buffers, as earlier described). Furthermore, the newer version uses only quad SMD op amps, which limits your options, but ultimately forces you to save money: I’d use OPA1644 for front end and OPA1604 for headphone amp buffers. You can probably get a used HP4 for about $50 (or less), which will probably put you out about $120-130 for the whole project. Conversely, if you consider the cost of a CMOY project, which can easily run up to $50 for lower performance (wonky split 9V rail, for example), $80-90 for Super CMOY (designed around the OPA1688), or $129 for the O2 headphone amp (which puts out 140mA/channel, versus 150mA in my modded HP4), this is a pretty great deal for four extremely powerful headphone amps. Of course, this assumes you are the kind of person who delights in voiding warrantees and has the equipment to do so…

As a final note, I should mention that this design leaves two op amp channels in the input/output buffer section unused. The monitor output of the HP4, a useful feature for using the device as a monitor level control, is ‘impedance balanced’, meaning the ‘ring’ connection on a TRS plug is connected to ground through a 51 ohm resistor––practically speaking, it’s an unbalanced connection. It’s possible I could use that second channel to create an inverted signal and fully balance the output, but I decided to let this rest for now… An idea for someone else!

Rokit 5 G3 Limiter and Stand-by/Mute removal

Finally I got around to figuring this out. Had to poke around a little bit.

Ran across this schematic in the land of diy forums. It’s for the G2 Rokit 6 amps, which had the notorious black goo of death problem, so totally different design (well, probably not that different… these budget companies never really redesign their stuff if they don’t have to, unless they can make it simpler/stupider), but it struck me that their limiter was using just one bipolar transistor right after the input buffer, so I went looking for lone transistors near the input, and lo and behold, there is only one (Q5, just above the right-most large ceramic capacitor).

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Oscilloscope revealed bits of signal being leached off, so it seemed I had found the culprit. Removed Q5, but both amplifiers suddenly muted… hm.

Traced signal from top-most pin of Q5, found it running to the ‘mystery chip’ just above, U5. Looks like it’s some kind of gate circuit: when it receives enough input voltage at pin 5 (lower left pin), seems like it opens pin 4 (upper left) and passes 5V, which is what the amp circuits need to unmute and shut off standby (datasheet for TDA7296 actually specifies 3.5V minimum to disengage mute/standby function).

This reveals a couple of things about KRK’s design. First off, the limiter is running all the time. Even at relatively low levels it seems to be leaching signal, and globally for both treble and bass. Secondly, the mute circuit depends on the output of the limiter in order to engage, so the limiter needs to be operating rather aggressively in order to unmute the amplifiers. This is why, when I removed Q5, the mute circuit wasn’t seeing any input. I’ll say again: IF YOU HEAR ANY SOUND, THE LIMITER IS LIMITING, A LOT. 🤦‍♂️

So… remove the transistor (hot air is easiest), remove the IC, and short pins 3 and 4 as shown (I used a little piece of wire clipping).

KRK mod detail

Now the amp engages immediately, without any lag. There are electrolytic caps decoupling the input to the mute/standby pins in the amplifier, so there won’t be a big pop. Can see the voltage at pins 9/10 of TDA7296 rising and falling gently with on/off.

Things sound ‘snappier’, more precise––these are some real speakers now! This project has officially reached it’s zenith. EDIT: I’m shitting my pants at how amazing this sounds. All my previous mods really seem to have come to life now, the low end is incredibly clear and integrated (it’s like all the overtones just lock), I find I’m listening with the volume a bit lower, and both speakers sound more balanced (the right speaker always felt just a little softer, and they’re ‘matched’). My reference recordings sound uncanny. And just over a little transistor…

*PROCEED AT YER OWN RISK* I listen primarily to Classical stuff, I’m not pounding EDM or anything. I assume this circuit is here for a reason.

If you want someone to do this for you, check out this guy: https://www.danieldialatone.com/gallery. Used to be a head engineer for Black Lion Audio, studio monitor ‘enhancements’ are his specialty. I just use the TI SoundPlus series of opamps (which I think sound great, enough of an improvement), based on their functional equivalency to what’s on the board (FET/bipolar, comparing input impedance, etc) he actually hand selects different opamps for their unique flavor. If my amateurish experimentation got me this far, just think what a real pro can do!

Coming up: RME UFX mods, Presonus DP88 mods, Behringer ADA8200 (re-)mods, Yamaha TG77 mods

Between Nature and Culture — Lessons Towards Jonathan Harvey’s ‘Paradise Garden’, part 1

I was a bit late to the game on Jonathan Harvey, who has now been galavanting through stars and galaxies since 2012 (probably skipping rocks across the milky way with Karlheinz, who I understand consistently skips to 13, counting backwards whilst ritually removing his nose, ears, and fingers… and this, sweetie, is where babies come from). I’d heard the name, but little more than that until about four years ago, when my colleague Louis Chiappetta introduced me to Harvey’s Bird Concerto with Pianosong owing to my interest in Messiaen’s avian output. Since then I’ve found myself profoundly interested in Harvey’s music (if you are a breathing human with a beating heart, this is not hard to do), something I’m grateful to have happened in my musical life. I’ve only really played three pieces of his (I am currently learning the entirety of his piano output, which at 45 minutes total is relatively slight), first one piece he’s probably best known for, Tombeau de Messiaen, an 8 minute romp for piano and electronics written in 1992 as a memorial to the eponymous French composer; Run Before Lightning, a fiendish 2004 outburst of hot condensate and blurred fingers for flute and piano; and now Bird Concerto with Pianosong, a 2001 piano concerto (of sorts) for sinfonietta and electronics. To say I performed the latter at Cornell last April with Ensemble X and Timothy Weiss conducting would be to assume I had ‘merely’ survived the rodeo bull test of concerto pianism. But this piece, in its current extant form, cannot ‘merely’ happen without a ton of DIY and unintended high-stakes team building exercises. And I would say that’s a shame, because Bird Concerto is an indisputable masterpiece and should be getting play everywhere, except that my now overriding impression of Harvey’s work, both from reading in the wake of his interests, playing some of his music, and really getting under the hood of this particular piece, is that his imagination thrived on this borderland of material and immaterial. As such, the unanticipated restorational work needed to make this piece happen now seems a puckishly poetic message from the composer as he traverses the stars. A bit like Debussy, a clear articulation of ambiguity is the musical goal, but any investigation towards the purpose or motivation behind particular musical decisions seems to run circles around the same big signpost: “pleasure is the law.”

The obsessive performer whines, “Well, certainly there is craft! How else could you have constructed something so gloriously unified!?”

The master of mystic arts calmly replies, “Science can reduce to common unit: ‘sample’ ; and so connect : built net of that unit hybrid forms. The semantics, deeper meaning, can be changed (with imagination) otherwise it remains reductionist and brittle. New Insights, new connections, formed between Nature and Culture.”❁ [any time I reference material, like this, from Harvey’s sketches held at the Sacher Stiftung in Basel, I will indicate with this mandala-like symbol. My deepest gratitude to the Sacher foundation, and in particular Simon Obert, who manages the Harvey collection in addition to 30+ other composers.]

In short, the electronics provided by the publisher were not really usable (I will explain what this means later on), and as this performance was a relatively low-budget university affair, we could not afford to, say, hire and fly out a specialist from IRCAM, or even dedicate someone to being solely responsible for the electronics. Or rather, that someone was me, since this piece is the subject of my dissertation, and I do a fair amount of work with electronics on the side. Working in tandem with the amazing Abby Aresty from Oberlin, where Tim Weiss was conducting the piece (with Ursula Oppins on piano) just a week before our Cornell performance, we managed to make the piece work literally just under the wire. This is to say, our performance was, for all intents and purposes, the sound check. That process is the subject of this blog post, and until the materials for this piece are updated, hopefully this serves as useful documentation for those interested in performing an early masterwork of 21st century music.

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I did NOT sign up for this… actually, this is exactly what I signed up for. (Photo credit Qiushi Xu)

First, a word about Harvey for those who aren’t familiar with his work. He was born in 1939 in Sutton Coldfield, UK, just outside Birmingham, and spent much of his childhood as a church chorister amidst the smells and bells of high Anglican musical practice, often singing in two services a day. His father, Gerald Harvey, was an amateur composer, a sort of “English pastoral mystic” as the son puts it, and it is within these deeply musical contexts JH recalls having a series of epiphanic experiences in his chorister days: feeling subsumed by the otherworldly power of the sacred music he was performing, having occultist visions of ghosts and other spirit presences and life after death, and often stealing into the St. Michael’s chapel and improvising on the organ. He “lost religion” later on during his years at Cambridge, but continued to have a love for the rituals and their encompassing mystery, and essentially decided that through his burgeoning desire be a composer he would pursue music fixated on the mystical experiences universal to most religions. The danger of falling into a kind of “warm bath” of New Age-ist banal, escapist happiness was not lost on him, and so his music, if it may be very bluntly summed up, sought an honest depiction of humanity’s Sisyphean struggle of attaining transcendent states of consciousness. That is, filled with noise, distractions, interruptions, anxiety, fear, and only brief glimpses of a Beyond that could as quickly disappear under a flash of dark spiritual retrogradation. He eventually became a practicing Buddhist, and many of his later works deal directly with Buddhist texts and teachings. …Towards a Pure LandBody Mandala, and Speakings are a trilogy of orchestral works written (apparently at mind-blowing speed) between 2005-8, all based on Buddhist thoughts on the purification of mind, body, and speech. Similarly, Wagner Dream is a 2006 opera based on a semi-fictional account of Wagner suffering a heart attack in Venice and receiving a lesson/vision from the Buddha as he dies. This was somehow written at the same time as the aforementioned trilogy. JH saw Buddhism (at least Vajrayana Buddhism, which is what he studied and practiced) as a near perfect distillation of the spiritual pursuits of most other religions, and as such the Buddhist themes in his works serve as tools for seeking a universalist vision of humanism, which you could say is rather a continuing theme of the Enlightenment (itself heavily influenced by Eastern philosophy). His music is at times blindingly ecstatic, a bit as though Scriabin had lived through the transistor age, but not without a hint of the irreverent 1960s wit that made artists like Cage and Kagel masterful musicians (a fact that I’m afraid is all too often lost on modern-day denizens of post-modern thought, but not this incredible film).

p0129hb1JH’s use of electronics to augment his music, which began quite early on in the 1960s and represents a large body of his output, was a favorite tool for communicating the impermanence of reality taught in Buddhism (‘Emptiness’, or Śūnyatā), since with electronic sounds if one can trick the ear into believing the worldly impossible, the mind can be moved towards the otherworldly possible. There is so much more to say about the spiritual side of his music, which has in many ways cast him as the Buddhist-tinged successor to über-Catholic Olivier Messiaen (who, unlike JH, rejected the “mystical” label for his own work), and this is undoubtedly what JH most foregrounded about his artistic outlook. But for now, a bit about Bird Concerto

Bird Concerto with Pianosong was written for English pianist Joanna MacGregor, and premiered at the Cheltenham Music Festival by Martyn Brabbins and Sinfonia 21 in November of 2001. Harvey seems to have conceived of the piece as a concerto for piano and sampler (he refers to this in his work diary as early as November 1999❁), but says the Californian birds he heard while teaching at Stanford went a long way to reorienting his thinking on the piece from being a “Piano Concerto” to a “Bird Concerto.” In his program notes he writes, “‘real’ birdsong was to be stretched seamlessly all the way to human proportions—resulting in giant birds—so that a contact between worlds is made. When I started to transpose them and slow them down to our natural speeds of perception they began to reveal level after level of ornamentation – baroque curlicues and oriental arabesques.”

The birdsongs❁ used for this piece are, in fact, not ‘real’ birds, but synthetic transcriptions ‘drawn’ by hand by Bill Schottstaedt, one of Harvey’s colleagues at Stanford. In an email to Harvey, Schottstaedt wrote:

I used a bird guide (the “Golden” guide to birds) and a couple of articles from Cornell’s Ornithology lab; these had stamp-sized sonograms which I transcribed by hand (using a magnifying glass) into CLM (actually Mus10) envelopes, then tidied some of them up by ear –– there are regional differences in bird songs. It was a lot of fun, but was a serious strain on the eyes. The result managed to fool (or at least interest) both the AI lab cat (named Marathon for her yowling) and my pet cat, so I figured the experts were satisfied. I very pleased you’ve found them useful!❁

These synthetic songs are loaded onto a sampler, originally a massive rack-mounted Akai unit, and the pianist triggers these samples from a Yamaha synthesizer (whose own sounds are often subtly employed) placed on top of the piano. From several of the most interesting birdsongs, unique scales were extracted and expanded into ‘spaces’❁, collections of pitches representing repeating patterns that acted as, to use his word, “sieves” through which his melodic and gestural inclinations would be automatically organized (in other words, the music is ‘magnetized’ to a unique constellation of pitches from low to high frequencies). On the ‘human’ end of the spectrum, 15 instrumental ‘objects’ are composed integrating various fragments of these birdsongs––in his sketches he writes, “Just as birds have ‘their songs’, so do we,” and further hints at quotations both of his own music and other composers❁. JH compositionally treats these ‘objects’ as sampled sounds in and of themselves, and in so doing the human and avian worlds are entangled––bird ‘objects’ are slowed down to the human realm of hearing, their pitches and rhythms extracted and distributed into music played by the ensemble, the human ‘objects’ elevated into the avian realm through their relationship to specific birdsongs.

screen shot 2019-01-23 at 7.16.03 pm

But that’s just what’s happening on stage between the pianist/‘samplist’ and the rest of the ensemble. Every instrument is miked, translating to ca. 24 microphones on stage, each of which is fed to a mixing board (attended by one of three ‘diffusionists’) out in the audience which mixes the incoming signals into 8 ‘groups,’ the constituent instruments of which change with each section of the piece. These 8 groups, whose respective levels are controlled by the first diffusionist at the board, are fed into a computer program (Max/MSP) for processing. The incoming ‘humansongs’ are ring modulated (a sound made famous primarily on a classic British TV show), a signal processing mechanism similar to the way radio signals are transmitted, which, believe it or not, is related to the physiological mechanism by which birds produce sound. Remember that Yamaha synth mentioned earlier? Yamaha’s synthesizers use a form of Frequency Modulation synthesis, effectively the same phenomenon used by birds, developed by the American composer John Chowning at Stanford. Human/avian entanglement in all facets of this piece, both within and without.

The ring modulated instrument groups, now ‘birdified,’ and whose levels in the software are controlled by the second diffusionist, are fed into a part of the computer program which diffuses them throughout a circle of 8 loudspeakers positioned around the audience. The instruments’ apparent position within this circle are controlled by the third diffusionist with two joysticks, which, just visually speaking, has to be the most cool-looking job in the whole piece. This third diffusionist’s joystick gestures ‘flies’ the instrumental sounds around the room, an idea Harvey seems to have been inspired to explore from the writings of French philosopher Gaston Bachelard, himself interested in the sensation of ‘flight’ and motion as the foundation of imagination itself:

A psychology of the imagination that is concerned only with the structure of images ignores an essential and obvious characteristic that everyone recognizes: the mobility of images. Structure and mobility are opposites—in the realm of imagination as in so many others. It is easier to describe forms than motion, which is why psychology has begun with forms. Motion, however, is the more important. In a truly complete psychology, imagination is primarily a kind of spiritual mobility of the greatest, liveliest, and most exhilarating kind. To study a particular image, then, we must also investigate its mobility, productivity, and life. [Bachelard, Air and Dreams, 2]

The jobs of all three diffusionists are marked up at the very bottom of the score, the joystick ‘gestures’ in Harvey’s distinctive chicken-scratch, the rest seemingly marked up by a considerably less feverish hand. screen shot 2019-01-23 at 2.52.03 pm

I had gone through and color-coded three separate scores for the three diffusionists (for our concert, an all-star trio of composers Kevin Ernste, Piyawat Louilarpprasert, and Christopher Stark), only to soon realize that Faber had sent us only old editions of the score from 2001 which were missing more than half the crucial markings for the diffusionists. This being only a few days before the concert, I went to the library, copyright infringement be damned, literally cut the school’s copy of Bird Concerto from its bindings, and ran it through a copier. I have subsequently apologized to the librarian, who I think forgave me, and as for Faber…

In total, what is needed to perform this piece is the following:

  • 8 large speakers (≥1000 watts each) and stands (plus 2 subwoofers, if available)
  • 2 stage monitors for pianist and conductor
  • 23-24 microphones and stands
  • a digital mixing board with at least 34 inputs (22-23 preamps), 16 outputs, and an extremely flexible routing architecture
  • a Yamaha SY77 or TG77 synthesizer
  • an Akai sampler for the birdsongs
  • an interface between the computer and the mixing board (for 8 ‘groups’)
  • two joysticks
  • 16 channel MIDI fader
  • a computer with enough processing power to run the diffusion software
  • approximately 40 cables long enough to get where they need to go (and extras, since cables tend to die when they are needed most)
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Photo credit Qiushi Xu

If that seems like a dizzying number of things, then yes, you are definitely a human being. This is probably “Tuesday” for the technicians who travel with rock bands or work on television sets, but for modest Classical venues, where electronics or amplification of any kind is looked upon at best as an ‘other,’ at worst a kind of moral failing, this is a challenge. This is, in fact, something Harvey found fault with in the Classical music world. Our venue at Cornell, Barnes Hall, which is a charming converted 19th century chapel, is NOT equipped for any of this. Literally every electronic music concert is a DIY extravaganza, and every piece of gear has to be schlepped over from the Cornell Electroacoustic Music Center, which is itself basically a classroom, a closet, and a few makeshift booths. This piece basically emptied the CEMC’s mic locker, I had to supplement with my own mics (including a pair of DIY binaurals), and we borrowed from the Theater Arts department and one of the visiting composers.

harvey floor chart

Furthermore, Cornell does not own a digital mixing board. The reason this is crucial for the piece is the fact that the routings for each of the 25 incoming signals are fluid, meaning that at about a dozen points in the piece the destination(s) for each input has to change. This can be done on a digital mixing board, where these routings are preset, saved, and can be shifted instantaneously at the click of a button. This cannot be done on an analog board, unless a small army of tiny hands could be on 25 knobs at once, all coordinated to move simultaneously.

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Photo credit Qiushi Xu

Furthermore, not all digital mixing boards are created equal. Many digital boards, while loaded with glistening lights, fancy FX, and claims of that-that-and-the-other gizmo-gadget, are fundamentally rooted in the assumption that all anyone would ever want to do with such a piece of gear is mix a band at a local Christian revival. Anything more complicated than that either requires ‘hacking’ the board, or migrating into a much higher price bracket, which begins to appear exponential. The boards recommended by the authors of the technical documentation for Bird Concerto are such beasts, but older units, new when the piece was written 18 years ago, beyond long-in-the-tooth now, and most don’t even have a way to connect to a computer, a real no-brainer these days, necessitating a separate external interface simply to get sounds between mixer and laptop. Others were so large (like this DigiCo board) there would have been no way to safely fit them into the space without violating some sort of fire code. This is assuming they can be rented, borrowed, or (God willing) purchased on a university budget, which itself exists in a perpetual state of quantum entanglement of way more and way less than you expect, depending on the cycle of the moon, how many undeclared freshmen are in a 100 yard radius, and if such a project is politically useful to a faculty member.

But as I flip through Harvey’s sketches, I come across these beautiful lines of scribbled thoughts, free-associations on the yet-unformed piece as it flits about the aviary of his imagination:

PARADISE GARDEN … Wonderful magic calm! … Paradise garden meditation the heart and soul of the piece 

Remember, nobody said ‘wonderful magic calm’ would be easy, least of all Harvey. After all, his take on the human condition is one of constant struggle towards spiritual transcendence. I have been through the electronics of this piece with a fine tooth comb, designing and implementing patches that we used for our performance (I even bought a second hand Yamaha TG77 for this piece, which is awesome and I will write about at some point), and my brain still gets twisted up thinking about it. I imagine that’s how he saw these tools, and I get the sense he wanted it to stay that way, to retain some of its beautiful mystery, tornadic confusion, unknowability. The English composer Julian Anderson told me about a workshop he attended as a graduate student during which time attendees would get to work with Harvey on composition with electronics. Harvey, by this point well known for his electro-acoustic work, announced that the technician was not able to attend the first day, and singled out Anderson to help him with the equipment. Anderson, somewhat peeved that he, an attendee, was now tasked with playing technician for the master, resisted somewhat, only to acquiesce when it became evident Harvey didn’t know how to turn anything on. John Harbison, who knew Harvey very briefly when they were at Princeton, separately said Harvey told him electronics were a kind of literal magic. I mean, he’s right, isn’t he? Think about the understanding of quantum physics that was required to make the first transistor turn on and off, then think about the trillions of those things in a single smartphone, a single chip the size of a fingernail clipping, and I’m willing to believe we’re all at Hogwarts.

The business of all this electronic trouble is not a fault of creation, it is simply a part of that struggle… or used to be, anyway. Is it really appropriate for someone who grew up in the age of digital audio and smartphones to assume the attitude of someone who grew up in the age of reel-to-reel tape? What kind of insights are afforded by decoupling yourself from the nuts and bolts of creation if you have grown up in an age of technological demystification? Can technology really represent spiritual transcendence, or is non-technology the new spiritual quest? These are questions of performance practice unfolding before our eyes, as fascinating as they are disquieting, especially when it comes time to ask the question typically reserved for shawms and harpsichords, “what is the sound of this music?”

I will write about our performance and electronic solutions for Bird Concerto in a subsequent post (warning: it will be wonkish, but if this guy can make a video about the drill on the Mars rover, I am giving myself permission to be a nerd), but for now this pithy reminder, again from Harvey’s sketches for Bird Concerto:

Don’t forget: lead every being to bliss