The Nomadic Diary of Onyx Ashanti: Episodes #3 and #4: Exploring the Digital Memory Banks and Exo-voice Development Updates

As I mentioned in my previous post, I was gifted a BAD ASS Blackmagic pocket cinema camera to document my travels.  so in addition to all of the other stuff I am learning, I am also working on developing more of an “eye” when it comes to visual expression.20140610_144319

This is not the first time I have pushed into the video/film realm.  I edit all of my own videos.  but I do it more from the point of view of a technician rather than as a form of expression unto itself maninly because I never had a nice enough camera that warranted the expenditure of cognitive resources.  but I have been reaching into the void of visual expression lately, to see what I find.

over the last 2 months I have accumulated 1.5terabytes of footage of a range of subject matter.  I had been contemplating doing another “range of time” video, ie.  footage from a place and time, singularly, like berlin or amsterdam or atlanta.  but then it occurred to me that what I have is a digitized visual and audio memory bank.  as such, it would be interesting to interact with it as the brain interacts with memory.  so instead of, say, a video project concerning my time in Athens at the Slingshot Festival, or from my time in mississippi, I could think more about the totality of experiences from holland to where I am currently and single out particular conceptual constructs like, as this project presents, all of the representations of motion over the last 2 months.  times in cars, trains, planes and buses, just watching the world go by.

this makes the memory bank much more random access and interesting as a store of experiences.  ive got LOADS of footage  festivals, conferences,  maker faire, singing robots, thunder storms, strange insects…it is a more interesting way to access the digitally stored memory of my nomadic travels and makes me think very differently about what I capture on film and as audio.

Episode#3 is entitled “memory of motion” and is a montage of moments in motion between the time I landed in atlanta to go to Athens (GA) for the slingshot fest, then from atlanta to nashville to mississippi to memphis, san jose, san francisco and finally to oakland, where I am currently working on a few things that will be the subject of future nomadic diary episodes. Episode#4 is me playing in Berkeley, just above the BART station.  I was very lucky to have my friend Tony Patrick there the impart his camera skills on the occasion.  The purpose of the sound track is to give an aural reference to the state of synth development at the time of editing, for posterity.  in these videos, the synth functions have stabilized but are more simplistic than in previous posts.  this is because I took out many premade objects and replaced them with my own versions, but more on this shortly.

now that I am fully re-submerged back into busking, the iteration of systems is going waaaaaaaaaaay faster.  busking has always helped to accelerate idea iteration because you can practice more, in more relevant situations and get paid for it.  you become an entrepreneurial singularity; you only need think of an idea and try it in stages everyday that you go out.

as I have been pushing myself to get the contributor/open source version out into the hands of people, the fast design-build-test-revise-integrate cycle that busking affords, has been invaluable. when busking, glaring fuckups or just “not-so-nice”ups, become unbearable because you are interacting with it everyday for anywhere from 1-5 hours a day.  a crappy sound is bearable if one only has to rock it for a 15-40 minute show on a nice stage with a nice sound system.  but, after a week of 5 hour days, the issue is  brought into laser-like focus and you are able to hone in precisely on errant gremlins.

luckily, since I was literally “from” here before I moved to Berlin, some of my old busking gear was still stored in my friends basement.  I had only to acquire a new battery.  my berlin battery was horrendously large-25kg (approx 50lb) so when I went shopping, size was a major consideration.  I found a nice, small sealed battery and borrowed the small Roland monitor that I also used to use back then (thanks Jaswho? !) and hit the road


busking has supported me since I first moved away from home as an adult in the early 90’’s.  I knew a total of 3 songs when I started. busking allows you to develop.  it is the like a relationship with someone you might not see very often but when you do, its familiar and comfortable.

the last few months that I was in Berlin, I was beginning to feel “soft”.  most seasoned buskers can rock it at a moments notice, anywhere…ANYWHERE.  I was starting to feel like I was losing that edge.  I had spent so much (completely awe-inspiringly necessary) time inside my own head for the last couple of years, that I felt I was losing sight of the ability to just rock out. but I KNEW I was losing that edge last july when I was fortunate to find out that DubFX and Rico Loop were going to be rocking out for free in Mauer Park. they are both seasoned buskers and I was awed by these cats!  they rocked it non-stop, in the hot sun for 4-5 hours with footpedals and beatboxing!!

it was amazing!  and neither of these cats has to busk at all anymore.  they are both famous with full touring schedules, but they wanted to give something back, and they really did!  that show stuck with me to this day.  I thought “why am I not doing my thing, somewhere…anywhere!?”  (the answer was because I was in the middle of revising the code and the hardware design to be more easily printable, but still…)

so now that I am “exploring the now” –partly from the street-, the boldness is coming back…that thing that a busker has that says “yeah sure, play right here, right now!”, but it is mixing with this scientific thing that has emerged In the last 3 years where things get interesting.

one system that is benefiting from this the most is sound design.  although the novelty factor, can work on passersby, sub-evolved sound and/or it parameter interfacing, drive me insane in a very short span of time-usually 3-4 days.  if I feel trapped by my parameter interface, I get bored.  if the sound doesn’t evolve toward a future attractor where it conveys its character with efficiency and beauty, I get irritable.  playing daily compounds these feelings.  so having a system that I designed from the ground up to be in a perpetual state of iteration, makes for exciting investigation.  shitty sound used to just be shitty sound.  now, shitty sound is a daily-updated list of “to-do’s”.  now that stability is reasonably common and expected, I can add the last synthesis piece…

in March, I began using the new fractal synth ive been rambling about for almost 2 years.  by “fractal” I mean that it is truly fractal;

  • the system logic is an iterative branching protocol consisting of latching key sequences.  this means that by pressing one set of keys takes the system into a new mode and from this mode, a different set of keys, changes aspects of the current mode, from which yet another mode can be instantiated.  and since programming pure data is part of the expression, this branching system can continue to the limits of my computing power or cognitive abilities.
  • I imagine “functions” rather than specific sound outcomes, so I begin with the absolute simplest idea of the the sound function, then revise it toward higher states of expression, as I learn more and expect more from the sound.
    (this is the reason for the sound quality regression evident in my latest recordings; everything has been put into its simplest possible state so it can be iterated more easily toward higher states, rather than using too many objects that I didn’t build so as to sound “good”. )

the fractal synth the system is designed around, can be other types of sounds, based on how it is routed.  for instance, I can press one button and the sound is routed through a drum filter, so now, it is a drum.  but because it is gestural, the “drum” has a ripping/morphing kind of quality that is part function and part discovery-through-interaction.


pic 1: the fractal audio module object

pic2: quad-vector synth with a few of the gestural control modules to the right


pic3: the quad-vector synth closeup showing the routing


pic4: the x and y vectors from one hand


pic5: quad-oscillator selector patch

pic6: Drum filter

the last synthesis piece is the other timbral modalities ive been working on.  what this means is that when I press the “drum” button + another button, the sound now goes through a “string” filter, and/or a “pluck” filter, and/or a “wind turbulence” filter for wind instrument modes.  this is a bit of a holy grail for me now that I am comfortable with the concept of a synthesizer that I must effectively reprogram on the fly this sense, the term “quad-vector gestural synthesis”-which means that each x and y accelerometer vector, per hand, has its own complete synth- is the attractor that is pulling all development toward it. if the synthesis cant be done with gestures, then it is not gestural synthesis.

once this is working, it will be time to transcribe all the code and prepare it for distribution.  transcription will make it modular and understandable.  this will act to standardize the color synth parameters for the lights and the visualizations as well.


the mask has reached design stability now.  the final issues were;

  • snap together construction for ease of assembly and modification
  • designing a flip down mouthpiece so it could be moved away from the mouth without having to take the mask off.
  • modularity

in April I ordered a printer filament called tglase from Taulman.  this is PET, the same plastic used to make water bottles.  itits properties kind of slots between ABS plastic and Nylon.  its more rigid than nylon but more flexible than ABS and it doesn’t warp while printing.  but, most importantly, it refracts light beautifully, so I decided that it would be a great starting place for the mask design finalization stage.


the key design innovation for this was the simple idea of “”small interlocking pieces”.  I took a couple of weeks away from mask design to work on a side project; 3d printed orthotics.  this allowed me to investigate how one might create a design meant to be snapped together by hand and attached to a dynamically moving, shifting body, like the foot (I will show this as soon as it is functional).  it came down to the relationship of its interlocking small pieces.  so I took this new insight back over to the mask and started from scratch, guided by function only, and this was the result.

the design only touches the head at 7 points and is very easy to modify. the mouthpiece now shifts up, out and down out of the way and the circuit area isnt mashed against the jaw.  when not in use, it is easily partially disassembled.  the material is flexible and robust enough to withstand assembly/disassembly repeatedly. and although the contributor version will not have the goggles, which are form fit to my head size, it was a matter of a 5 minute design tweak to incorporate them.

the design is very very playable and comfortable for long stretches of time, even in direct sunlight, which was a weak point in previous designs.  having so much plastic against the skin is not comfortable under hot lights or sun, but this design solves that issue. currently, the facemount electronic components look boxy, but since they are now lego-like in upgradeability, the final versions will be much more streamline.

I have begun printing parts for a beta-build of the exo-voice.  this is a full exo-voice, printed with design revisions, for the purpose of putting on other peoples head and hands to get a feel for what needs to be changed so it can be used by the greatest number of people initially, or easily changed by the pilot, to suit their own personal needs or tastes.

being able to take the prosthesis out into the real world, playing on the street, gives me much more confidence in its design.  its been bouncing around in an un-padded bike bag for weeks now and has been extremely stable, ie., low incidence of broken parts, and faulty wiring.  as I print what will probably be eventually posted online/shipped to contributors, fit, finish and material properties will be defined and there will be much footage of people of various size, age, race and sex to see how well the design translates so it will be a “print-and-use” as possible.  I am planning to make this aspect of the project more social by taking some aspects of the fullfillment stage, around to local hackerspaces and doing it there, rather than in an apartment by myself.  more info on that as I wrap up this stage.  time to go play a bit.




“If Tony Stark played jazz and had a more creative superhero name, he would be Onyx Ashanti.”-WeAreReplicants “But best of all was an African American musician, Onyx Ashanti…a fusion of space and sound so evocative …you suddenly found yourself…swept up into an open place of art ‘in whose openness everything is other than usual.’ – Arthur Kroker, The Will to technology and the culture of Nihilism (2004) “He is not only an excellent musician and craftsmen on his instruments, but he is also exceedingly inventive. In my estimation, … he is one of the brightest lights and most inventive new musicians I’ve run into.” – Rick Walker, Y2K9 International Loop Festival (Sep 18, 2009) “There are no two ways to put it: Onyx Ashanti is an amazing digital musician… Check out this Grammy award winning sound-designer and we believe you’ll understand.” – editor, Indaba Music (Feb 15, 2009) “Looks like a scene from some science fiction movie where an ascended being comes to earth incognito and begins the transmission of love to a dirty, sad, sick world. FEEL THE VIBE!!!” – birchnbark, YouTube (Aug 13, 2008)

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