Feb 4 2019

Veering off into left field – to build a marimbula

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This is a long way from xylophones and propane-tank drums, but I’ve really enjoyed building cajóns and – for the first time – a marimbula.

Quick demo and walkaround

The marimbula is a Caribbean instrument, descended from the African kalimba, and generally functions as a bass. As you’ll see in the video at the bottom of the post, I first experimented with a 6-key marimbula built onto the back of one of my cajons, just to figure out the basics of construction.

This one is a 16-key marimbula – which I’ve decided has about three too many bottom-end keys and perhaps one too many high-end keys, as the sound quality falls off quite a bit at the ends of its scale. Next, I might try building one like a piano keyboard (with two layers of keys in white and black) centered in the middle of this scale.

The tuning has been kinda challenging – I finally settled on D – but I’m tuning it slowly by ear because the digital tuning apps can’t handle all the overtones it puts out. Anyway, it’s a helluva lot of fun to play – particularly on a nice, resonant wood floor – because it’s easy to play, and the notes send vibrations through your butt and up your spine. I take great satisfaction in building instruments that create physical joy along with pleasant music.



Jan 16 2019

Building cajóns – all of a sudden

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The old-timey title for this post could have been:

The Wisdom and Benefits of Contemplating a Temporary Shift from the Traditional Norm for This Institution in Materials, Methods, Design and Construction of Multi-Purpose Acoustic Percussion Instruments:

Or, a “Box to Bang On”

Because this post is about a kick in the head. A total world-shifting creative non-sequitur from all this demanding, burly, unforgiving metal I’ve been working with for so many years.

All of a sudden I’m building cajóns. Out of wood. Where did *that* come from.

Lemme back up a bit.

I’ve been goofing around with the idea of combining disc gongs with a sound box like the one I built a million years ago for my very first xylophone.
I wanted to explore: disc arrays, resonance, materials, instrument playability.Here’s a sketch: —->

And then it occurred to me that the cajón (a sit-upon box drum with  roots in Peru and on loading docks everywhere) is such a perfect blend of structural integrity and resonance – like musical furniture – that if I could build one strong enough, it could do double duty as both metallophone and drum.

Gee, that sounds like a lot of work.

Maybe just start with building a good cajon to see if it’s easy enough. So, after digesting half a dozen how-to’s on YouTube and stealing some of the most interesting design ideas into my plan, I started my first.

Here’s a ragged build log:


Sep 10 2018

Photos, videos and thoughts from Burning Man 2018 – The Big WHY

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It’s been four years since I first mutated XyloVan as “the Light Fandango” and cruised the playa dressed as a glowing ballroom ceiling.

This year’s journey to Burning Man proved just as magical as the 2014 outing, thanks to amazing new campmates at OKNOTOK who helped me build and light it, a couple of excellent percussion cruises, and an endless stream of beautiful people who came to play the instruments.

More thoughts – and a question for you – below the images and videos:


Random notes from the keyboards.


Brief clip of art cars in line for night inspection at the Black Rock City Department of Mutant Vehicles.


The gorgeous RadiaLumia.

People question Burning Man – as they should.

Why bring millions of dollars of art, energy and resources into a godforsaken desert, run around like maniacs, burn a lot of it to the ground and then go home?

Why not put all that power and cash into solving problems, feeding the hungry, educating the young, improving humanity?

What the hell is all this for?

I think that, at some deep, cellular level, humanity needs to Burn. The immediate purposes – entertainment, inspiration, provocation, cross-pollination – are obvious, but the Long-Tail benefits remain hidden.

As a species, burning is a collaborative effort to evolve in some way as a species.

Whether it’s through living Ten Principles culture of participation, inclusion and immediacy, or trying to survive the brutally Darwinian process of designing an art car that won’t be kicked to pieces by 60mph winds or drug-crazed revelers, we’re trying to Go Somewhere Different with all that we bring to Burning Man.

Is Black Rock City’s increasingly global culture spiritual exploration, artistic experimentation, radical interaction, human stress-testing or just blatant, party-brained fuckery?

The answer is yes – all that and something more.

The question remains – why?

Your thoughts on this are welcome. (Just register to comment).


Sep 10 2018

Percussion cruise to Sonic Runway and beyond

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A percussion cruise is a pretty simple pleasure: Invite people onto the roof to play the drums and gongs, and drive across the Black Rock Desert.

As I drive, happy sounds drift down – people lazily striking the gongs, and chatting passionately about their burns.

The first part of this clip is the sound of a cruise we did on Tuesday afternoon, and the latter part is part of XyloVan’s set at Sonic Runway – friends from Liminal Labs joined random Burners on the roof and around the xylophones to play.

Unfortunately, the mixer crapped out so the roof percussion drowned out the xylophones, but the sound was enough to trigger some beautiful patterns on the Runway.


Sep 10 2018

Austin burns down Keyboard 1 at Burning Man, 2018

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I built XyloVan to give others the joy of playing music. More often, they give me the joy of hearing amazing talent. This guy – who told me his name was Austin – really brought it.


Aug 19 2018

Sweating the details – and XyloVan’s cruise schedule – for TTITD 2018

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Preparing for Burning Man – the Thing in the Desert – consumes you. You sacrifice all your time to it, and much of your sanity. I’ve been too busy to even blog about this year’s preparations, which have included a slew of new instruments and a complete teardown/rebuild of the Arduino-controlled canopy-light system. As I’m probably overfond of saying, a mutant vehicle is a hole in the playa into which one pours money, blood and tears.

But it’s still a mutant vehicle. And I’ve got a schedule to keep.

So here, this’ll catch you up:


2018 Scheduled Cruises:

Flag me down if you see me and I’ll give you a ride if there’s room!

If I’m not cruising the playa, abandoning XyloVan briefly to volunteer on GATE, enjoying the insanely inventive events at home at OKNOTOK at 3:00/A, I’ll be doing one of these things.

  • Tuesday 8/28
    • 12 noon: BAIT route from 3:00/L to the Temple and back
    • 2:30 pm: XyloVan Robøtik Perkussion Jam Cruise departs from OKNOTOK (3:00/A)
    • 3 pm: BAIT route from 3:00/L to the Temple and back
  • Thursday
    • 12 noon: BAIT route from 3:00/L to the Temple and back
    • 2:30 pm: XyloVan Robøtik Perkussion Jam Cruise departs from OKNOTOK (3:00/A)
    • 3 pm: BAIT route from 3:00/L to the Temple and back
    • 10 pm: XyloVan plays the Sonic Runway in deep playa – Come bang on the van with us and make the Sonic Runway go wild!

May 23 2018

XyloVan’s Light Fandango comes home to BRC in 2018

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At the temple, 2014.

YES!

“The Light Fandango” will return to Black Rock City this August in full dress.

I just got my invitation from the Department of Mutant Vehicles. To say I’m excited is a bit of an understatement.

I learned a lot in 2014, the last time she flew.

The chief lesson was – assemble the chandeliers with lock washers instead of flat washers so they don’t keep unscrewing and sending the delicate handmade fixtures crashing to the playa while driving (thus requiring me over and over and over and over again to haul the 10-foot A-frame ladder down from the Cloud Deck, set it up, clamber to the top, screw everything back together, re-crimp all the destroyed electrical connections, clamber down, and put the ladder and tools away).

Oh, and Velcro wraps are no substitute for zip-ties.

A more valuable lesson was this: an on-playa build crew is worth more than water, gold or any precious commodity you can think of, and deserves a spot on XyloVan’s roof on burn night, along with all the just-thawed Gatorade I can give them.

I’m looking really looking forward to working with the good folks at OKNOTOK, the brilliant camp that has graciously agreed to host XyloVan this year.

Watch this space for updates on placement!


Feb 17 2017

Tonepod 2 – A new, more-portable hank drum design

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(edit: I quit Facebook in 3/2018, which accounts for the missing videos.)

So, I make these musical drums out of up-cycled propane tanks. Click through for a demo video (and the build log) for Tonepod 2, the new model. Making this one, as with the others – gave me tremendous joy – which is good because the process takes about 40-60 hours and fills our basement shop with dust and noise. And yes, I might be able make one for you. Inquire here.


At this point, I have already safely emptied the tank of propane and washed out the residue of methyl mercaptan (the nasty stink agent that lets you know when odorless propane is leaking). (Seriously, don’t use any tool on metal until the propane is safely gone). I’ve cut off the handle from the top and the base ring from the bottom, and ground off the welds, and now I’m grinding off the rest of the paint before cutting … Continue reading


Aug 9 2016

#7 – the Rat Rod

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I’m not much of a player, but here’s a demo of a drum in C-minor – This is the seventh drum I’ve made out of a 20-pound propane tank.

The discarded tank came into the shop in a thrashed, rusted-out pale blue, which looked amazing.

So I kept much of the original paint, cleaning off only a ring of the steel at the tips of the tongues. I then added a pinstripe ring around the hexagonal key (low-C) in the center, painted on a stylized “7”, which I limned in Sharpie – and sprayed 3 or 4 coats of clear enamel over the whole thing.

I made two major design improvements for sound – I cut out a resonator hole in the tank’s bottom (around the valve, just inside the handle).

And I’m experimenting with a new deadening material – recycled bicycle tubes wrapped around all the way around the tank to keep the body from ringing and drowning out the keys.

So far, so good!


Jul 2 2016

Fireball XL-5 – Tank drum video demo

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Here’s a quick demo of Fireball XL-5, which I made on commission for Burns. I’m not much of a musician and iPhone isn’t much of a sound-capture device, so the clip doesn’t quite do justice to how resonant it sounds in person. It’s glorious.

If you would like me to make a drum for you on commission, the price is $300 – $250 if you bring your own empty propane tank. Contact me for details.