March 18, 2012
Vol. 7, Num. 2
Kalimba Magic NEWS
introducing new models!
Greetings and Salutations from Chicago. I've asked Mark to let me write a series of tutorials that will explain how to interface and use your kalimba with your computer. The series will be initially geared to those in our community who are beginners, and will progress into some fairly advanced methods and practices. Please note that while I am writing these for the kalimba, they will cover other instruments too, so if you have a guitar, or a balliphone or an mbira, you'll be able to apply what you learn to those instruments as well.
There are many good reasons for connecting your kalimba to your computer, the first being that with the right software, tuning is easier, especially in the African tunings with -20 and -40 cent notes. Another is that with the proper software you can record yourself (and others), without investing in a separate recording device. You can practice with either a digital metronome (set to whatever time signature and speed you like. 12/8 @ 212 BPM anyone?) or with drum and/or percussion loops (again, set to whatever TS and speed you like). You'll be able to explore different effects like echo, reverb, and overdrive (for that Konono #1 sound) and others- for free- as opposed to investing in hardware effect boxes. You'll also be able to experiment with looping your kalimba lines, see Kevin Spears' excellent video on the Kalimba Magic site for some inspiration. It's all a matter of turning the box you are reading this on into a music machine and in the coming series of articles, I will explain how that is done.
Before we begin, I want to stress that your kalimba is a beautiful and very deep instrument, and my intention here is NOT to have you tethered to a computer, rather to have the computer aid you as a tool to use on your path.
First, I will explain how to plug your kalimba into the computer. This will vary with how it's made, as well as what kind of inputs your computer has, and whether it's a PC or Mac. Many of you are already well acquainted with this. If not, maybe you can ask your 12 year old daughter or nephew to help out. But all in, it's fairly simple, once, as they say on late night TV, YOU KNOW THE SECRET!
Note: In the interest of keeping this project as inexpensive as possible (around $10 or so) I am not including, at least at this point, another way of interfacing your kalimba with your computer, that is buying a separate audio in/out box, and connecting it to the usb or firewire port of your computer. That is the best way to do it, but also the most expensive, as these boxes range from $35 for the simplest one to thousands for a professional brand. My thought is that you would want to try the various things that I have listed above, and then if you like them enough to use them a lot, will invest in a separate piece of hardware. You won't need a separate tutorial for these boxes, as they are pretty straight forward and, if you'd like, drop me a line and I can guide you in choosing one.
Let's start with your instrument. The easiest way to go about this is if your instrument has a pickup already installed, for example, you may have a Hugh Tracey karimba with a built-in pickup. If yours doesn't, it's still easy to do, but will require you to either 1)install a piezo pickup and jack or 2) use an external microphone or 3) use the built-in microphone in your laptop.
There are various tutorials on the Web about how to buy, modify and attach a piezo pickup to an instrument, a number of which take the route of buying a piezo door buzzer at an electronics supply house, taking it apart and soldering on a jack. I know that look you just gave me after reading the last sentence (the same one my wife gives me when I try to explain why standing waves dissipate according to various cubic volumes and angles in reflecting surfaces of studio space), so for just a little bit more money, a dollar or two, I'd like to suggest that you go on eBay and do a search for a piezo pickup with a 1/4 inch jack already attached. For our purposes, these work as well if not better than the above modded one, and usually work out of the box (sorry, plastic bubble). If you search (took me all of 5 minutes), you'll be able to buy one for less than $10. Look for one that says it's for "mandolin or ukelele". It will have a disk (the pickup) attached to a short cable, with a plastic 1/4 inch jack on the end. I got one for $6.48 delivered, and while not exactly (!) the quality of the Rick Turner DTAR system in my tenor bass, it actually worked pretty well. You simply attach the round disk that is the pickup to your kalimba, with the supplied double sided tape and you are set. Using the tape (as opposed to screwing it down), you will be able to remove the pickup, so you don't have to use it when you don't need to, and you will be able to reposition it, as the position of the pickup on the kalimba matters, tone and volume wise. On a solid body kalimba, I find placing it on the bottom underneath the bridge works well to start. YMMV, experiment!
The next step is to get a cable to go from the kalimba pickup to the computer. The Hugh Tracey models with pickups and most of the piezo pickups sold on eBay with the jacks attached (you did order yours, right?) use a 1/4 inch jack, and require a 1/4 inch male plug on the kalimba end of the cable. These size plugs are at the end of what are commonly known as "guitar cords", and you might just have one lying around the house from the time you were in that Led Zeppelin tribute band? If not, no worries, as the other end of the guitar cord that goes to the computer is not going to work for our purposes. The end of the cable that goes into your computer will be a 1/8 inch plug, like the little one you see on the end of your ear buds/headphones etc. There are 2 routes here, either buy a 1/4 inch plug to 1/8 inch plug pre-made cable, or if you have a 1/4 inch to 1/4 inch "guitar cord", buy the little adapter that goes over the 1/4 inch end that will plug into your computer, making that end a 1/8 inch plug. That way you can also use the chord sans adapter to plug into the Fender Twin Reverb amplifier gathering dust in your garage (see above "Led Zeppelin Tribute Band". And lest you think I am being facetious, the lead kalimba player in Konono #1 does just that. You'll be able to try one out in the next series of tutorials, at least a simulation of the famous amplifier.)
Next, at the computer end, you'll need to do a little investigating. Most computers have two ports for audio. The port on the computer you are looking for is usually labeled "mic" for microphone. On a laptop it's usually along the side. On a tower it's usually attached to the soundcard or motherboard and will be in the back. YMMV when doing this, there's really no standard. There are USUALLY two ports that look alike next to each other, one is for the audio OUT which will let you plug external speakers into your computer, that is NOT the one we are looking for, ok? The correct one is labeled something like "Audio in" "line in" or "mic". This is where the cable end with your 1/8 inch plug goes. It helps if you use a flashlight to shine on the surrounding area. I don't know why engineers insist on using black plastic raised lettering on black plastic, but usually a light on the area will help you find the correct port. AND--a tip after doing this for years--it also helps to put a little piece of colored tape marking the correct one, unless of course you enjoy crawling around the back of your tower with a flashlight and bumping your head numerous times on the desk.
If you are using the external microphone method that I mentioned above, things will vary a bit. You are still going to be plugging your microphone into the "mic" port, but the end of the cable of your microphone might not be a 1/8 inch plug. You might have:
All of these will work, it's just a matter of matching the plug to the port.
AFA using the microphone in your laptop, though some laptops have gotten rid of these, yours might still have one. You'll know by reading the manual. Sorry I can't help you past that part, but there are far too many different models of laptops to be able to give you definitive advice.
By now you have plugged your kalimba or microphone into your computer, or at least ordered the piezo pickup and proper cable/plugs/adapters. In the next tutorial, I'll get into how to configure your computer to "see" the kalimba, and what software to download (for free) so you can use your computer to do both standard and various African tunings, as well as how to use the built in metronome in the same software suite. After that, it will be on to using Effects (how about throwing stereo triplet modulating figures in 8ths against the 3/2 patterns you are playing? EZ! once you know the etc. etc). Next you'll learn how to use your computer as a multitrack "tape machine" (grandpa, what's a tape machine?) to record your playing, as well as using drum and percussion loops for jamming along to, with loops that are freely available on the internet, including a huge free library of African and Afro Cuban riddims. And finally, in conjunction with the recording aspect of your new music machine, I'll show you how to get started with looping, which is a lot of fun and I must warn you..can be addictive.
John Pazdan is a veteran Chicago based musician/composer/producer who uses his Karimba and Mbira Huru alongside his acoustic/electric tenor bass and synthesizers to create, produce and perform music that's got a good beat you can dance to. Reach him at www.johnpazdan.com for any questions about these tutorials, and for some of his free music licensed by Creative Commons.