The Teller-Ulam Configuration Music Notes

 

Since you never know when magic will happen, I learned long ago to always turn on the DAT before sitting-down at the drums. As a result, most of the pieces on this disc were discrete sections that I pulled out of much longer improvisation sessions. (Some, like Captain Nagano's Secret, came from specific ideas I had when I sat down to play.) Except for choosing starting and ending points for each piece that made musical sense, no editing of any kind was done.

1. Frame 313: I'm pretty sure that this was the first piece recorded for this CD. I've always had ideas for a piece that sounded 'conversational', a solo style pioneered by Max Roach during the 1950s and expanded upon by Tony Williams during the 1980s. When I sat at the drums the day I recorded this, I was inspired by the way they were tuned and this piece flowed naturally. The title comes from the exact frame in Abraham Zapruder's film when President John Kennedy's head is blown apart by an assassin's bullet.

2. Random Fingers Of Change: The only piece on the CD where the music came directly out of a conventional drum groove. After a short intro, the groove settles-in (although there's no definite meter), and leads to adventures that take-off in several different directions. Ginger Baker-inspired tom tom patterns abound in the last half.

3. Mostly Liquid: A snares-off theme-and-variations played with tympani mallets. The piece is based on a tom tom ostinato pattern that is punctuated by accents. The accents define a melody that eventually shifts to all elements of the instrument before coming to a logical conclusion. I'm particularly fond of the bass drums that enter at around 1:30. Mostly Liquid was recorded during the same session that spawned Caffienated Productivity, Stumbling Into Bliss and Appendix Fascination Phase.

4. Captain Nagano's Secret: I had a definite idea of what I wanted to play before I sat down at the drums to record this. Using a pair of Hot Rods (small wooden dowels bundled to form a cross between a drumstick and a brush), Captain Nagano's Secret begins exclusively on the cymbals. (After all, where is it written that cymbals can't convey melody?) At different times during the piece I used both the dowel and back (rubber cap) ends of the Hot Rods, with the rubber caps bringing-in the drums at about 3:35 to add another dimension to the music. The stereo spread is particularly realistic on this piece. If your speakers are set up properly you'll hear the entire drumset spread out between them.

5. - 9. The Fletcher-Munson Curves: Whenever I change something in Yard Dog's recording setup I usually play descending patterns around the drums and patterns between the snare and bass drums to confirm the overall balance of the different elements of the drumset. A few of these 'soundchecks' were musical enough that I wanted to include them on the CD. These five were recorded over a six-month period. The title comes from the series of equal-loudness curves (researched and developed by Fletcher and Munson in the 1930s) that describe how the human ear's sensitivity to different frequencies (pitches) varies with how loud or soft the perceived sound is.

10. Caffienated Productivity: A short ditty inspired by Buddy Rich (who, according to Gene Krupa, was the greatest drummer who ever drew breath - and who am I to argue with Krupa?). I especially like the melodic motif at the end.

11. Stumbling Into Bliss: A melodic and textural exploration that manages to completely avoid both meter and pulse for the first three-and-a half minutes. In an attempt to create a "wash of sound" I used tympani mallets, flipping them around at different times to use the wooden ends as well as the felt ends. At about 3:30 a pulse creeps-in on the cymbals, and over the next minute or so the piece becomes more solidly metric, with patterns on the drums punctuating the cymbal patterns. At 6:16 I switch to conventional drumsticks and the piece ends with some Buddy Rich-inspired hi-hat and cymbal mania.

12. Telepathically Annoyed: Recorded during the same session as Random Fingers Of Change, this piece owes much of its bass/snare patterns played under a riding cymbal to Ginger Baker.

13. Active Air: This was the last piece recorded for this CD. With a heavily-syncopated pulse but no definite meter, Active Air may be the most 'contemporary'-sounding piece of the bunch. (However, I must admit that I don't find much inspiration in the playing of any of today's highly-regarded 'contemporary' drummers.) The title is the name of a business venture my father started more than 40 years ago, right around the time I first fell in love with the drums.

14. - 15. Meaningful Leftovers, Parts 1 and 2: I used Blasticks (a plastic brush) on both of these pieces. The triplet foundation gives Part 1 a straight-ahead 'jazzy' feel for the first couple of minutes. At around 3:02 I turn the Blasticks around and use the butt ends, and the piece becomes a lot denser and more tense, with some cool patterns between hands and feet. Part 2 was recorded several weeks later. I recall being extremely frustrated by something (it was so insignificant that now I can't even remember what it was), so I sat at the drums and started hammering them with the butt ends of the Blasticks. Although when I played it I hadn't intended to do anything more than blow-off some steam, the patterns between hands and feet and overall feel of what I played made the piece the perfect sequel to Meaningful Leftovers, which then became a two-part piece.

16. Appendix Fascination Phase: Beginning with patterns similar to The Fletcher-Munson Curves, Appendix Fascination Phase (the name came from a friend who as a child feared death by appendicitis) is the piece on this CD that sounds most like a conventional 'drum solo'. At around 2:30 I bring-in several elements that I had played in drum solos all the way back when I was earning a living playing on the road in the early-mid 1970s. (You always carry your 'bag of tricks' with you, no matter where you play.) I must admit that the Krupa-esque dotted-eighth/16th note snare patterns over 16th note bass drums sound a little stale to me now, but they're fun to play. The click you hear in the left channel at 5:19 is a dropped stick that actually hit the mic in front of the kit.

17. Meet Me At The 175: This is the only piece on the CD that uses overdubbing. The tom tom solo was played completely 'in the moment' - you can hear it jump almost fully-formed out of the first five notes I played. (As with Frame 313, the major scale tuning played a big part in inspiring my playing.) When I listened-back to the solo after playing it I immediately heard a jazz brush backup part for it in my head. I clearly had a pulse and meter in mind while I was playing the solo, and for the most part I stuck to them. However, when I attempted to play the brush accompaniment, I quickly found that at a few spots I had 'fudged' the meter or tempo a bit. So I had to memorize the tom solo so I could anticipate those points and adjust my playing on the backup track accordingly. On reflection, I think those glitches give the piece more life than it would have if my tempo and meter on the tom solo had been perfect. Even though Meet Me At The 175 consists of only four different notes, the melodic patterns sound a good deal more complex, showing just how musically expressive an instrument the drumset can be.

 

Recording information for The Teller-Ulam Configuration

This project was done at a very "leisurely" pace (over a 12-month period) while I was outfitting Yard Dog Studio and refining its acoustics, so the CD wound up being recorded using a variety of equipment, recording techniques and drum tunings. As a result, although the entire CD features the same basic instrument sitting in the same spot in the same room, it sounds different from piece to piece. I must admit that I like this quite unintended variation in sound; I think the changes in musical timbre from piece to piece keep the disc from sounding monotonous from a sonic standpoint. (Click here for details about the drumset I used for this CD.)

Being a strong believer that the fewer microphones you use the better chance you have of producing a realistic-sounding recording, most of the music on this CD was recorded using just four microphones: two AKG D112 cardioid dynamics and two Nakamichi CM300 cardioid condensers. On everything except Fletcher-Munson Curve #5 and Active Air, the D112s were placed about 16" away from the front bass drum heads, to achieve a good balance between impact and resonance. The EQ and filter capabilities of the new mixer I used on Fletcher-Munson Curve #5 and Active Air allowed me to move the D112s to within about 4" of the front bass drum heads for improved impact and isolation.

When I began the project Yard Dog Studio had minimal acoustic treatments. The first acoustic element I added was a drum isolation platform constructed of ¾" MDF sheets resting on Auralex PlatFoam riser foam. In an attempt to achieve a good balance on the entire kit while keeping the mics away from the reflections coming from the walls and ceiling, I placed one of the CM300s at chest height about two feet away from the platform, directly in front of the small toms, and the other one 16" from the floor about 3 feet away from the platform, directly to the left of the floor toms. Frame 313 and Meet Me At The 175 were recorded this way.

Soon after recording these pieces I added quite a bit of acoustic foam to the studio, especially to the ceiling directly over the drums, which helped kill some nasty acoustic reflections. This allowed me to move the CM300s to overhead positions, which provides a much better balance between all the elements of the drumset and a more realistic stereo spread between the speakers. One mic was placed almost directly over the floor toms, about 6½ feet above the drum riser, while the other was placed between the small toms and hi-hat, at the same height. Mostly Liquid, Caffienated Productivity, Stumbling Into Bliss, Appendix Fascination Phase, Random Fingers of Change, Captain Nagano's Secret, and Telepathically Annoyed were all recorded using this setup (with minor variations in mic position and height).

Even though I constantly experimented with mic positioning to achieve a good balance between the cymbals, snare drum and toms, I was never completely happy with the results, and after several months I realized that in addition to the pair of overhead mics, I needed to individually mic each pair of toms to better capture their tone and presence. I added a pair of AKG D8000 hypercardioid mics to the above setup, one placed directly between each pair of toms, about 3 inches above and 3 inches in front of their top rims. Again, experimentation with placement was necessary to achieve a good balance between presence and resonance. Fletcher Munson Curves 1 - 3 and Meaningful Leftovers, Parts 1 & 2 were recorded using this setup.

Up to this point I had been using an extremely basic 6-channel stereo mixer that lacks any EQ or filter capability. While this does limit flexibility (the only way to vary the sound is to change mics or alter mic placement), the absence of EQ and filters also adds very little phase shift to the signal, and the recordings made up to this point do create quite a realistic sense of the drumset being located in the listening room, spread-out between the speakers. Throughout the CD I hard-panned the overhead mics to their respective channels, while I panned the tom mics slightly less than all the way towards their respective channels (floor toms to the left, small toms to the right). I panned both bass drum mics dead center between the 2 speakers. (On Frame 313, Fletcher-Munson Curve #5 and Active Air the bass drum mics are panned left and right.) My lack of experience with the Fostex multi-track cassette recorder I used for the overdubbing on Meet Me At The 175 resulted in that entire piece being in mono (everything is dead-center between the speakers).

After nearly a year, the unrepentant equipment junkie in me took over and in June of 2003 I added a Behiringer mixer with more input channels, better-quality pan pots, good high-pass filters and 3-band semi-parametric equalization for each channel. The additional channels allowed me to mic the snare drum using another Nakamichi CM300 condenser, and experiment with equalization. (I panned the snare drum dead center, with the panning on the rest of the mics remaining as before.) Fletcher-Munson Curve #4 was recorded during the first day of experimentation with this new mixer, while Fletcher-Munson Curve #5 and Active Air, the last pieces recorded for this CD, were recorded at the next session a week later.

Besides the variations in recording techniques outlined above, during the year The Teller-Ulam Configuration was recorded I also experimented with drum tunings. In addition to varying the intervals between the four tom toms and the snare drum, I also increased the drumset's overall pitch. When I first began recording music for the CD, I had all of the drums tuned to pitches that were pretty low for their respective sizes. However, I have found that with such large drums, tuning them on the higher side of their range increases projection and resonance considerably. This is one way that John Bonham achieved his legendary sound — he used large drums and tuned them high. Tuning the drums to higher pitches also allowed me to increase the pitch intervals between all the drums (especially the toms), giving each one a more distinct individual voice.

- Hyam R. Sosnow, 2003

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