Notes from Bart Hopkin

by Bart on June 17, 2014

Kelemi IllustrationHello to everyone, including those who’ve long been acquainted with Experimental Musical Instruments and those who are new to us. Here’s an update of goings-on at Experimental Musical Instruments as of July 2015.

{ Comments on this entry are closed }

A couple of months ago we let it be known in this space that Experimental Musical Instruments would soon be turning the electronic and acoustic hardware side of our business over to a new vendor. The big switcheroo has now happened: to purchase instrument-making hardware items, you can now go to…
~~~(insert fanfare here)~~~

PinPegPickups sells the same products that we until recently sold here at EMI (and will quite likely sell additional products as time goes by). Their prices are similar, and you can expect the same level of service you’ve come to expect from us. Please click your way over to PinPegPickups to view products and place your order there.

The principals at PinPegPickups are Paul Winstanley and Susie Wasserstrom. Paul is an improvising musician here in the San Francisco Bay Area, a specialist in everything amazing and improbable you can do to an electric bass and a serious tinkerer with DIY effects pedals and signal processing. Susie is a student working toward a degree in conservation/resource studies and she will soon be a high school chemistry teacher. Both are now also storekeepers on the web, ready to serve any and all who may be building an unusual musical instrument or working to adapt, repair or enhance an existing one.

To our longtime hardware customers, many thanks! It’s been a pleasure to filling your needs for musical instrument hardware in the past, and we’re happy to recommend PinPegPickups for the same items and more going forward.
And please remember: while we’ve spun off the hardware side of things, we’re still selling our instrument-making books and CDs here in the Experimental Musical Instruments website. You can browse the catalog here.

{ Comments on this entry are closed }


by Bart on April 22, 2014

Well, people, for a while now we’ve been leaking the news that we’re going to be transferring the hardware side of EMI’s business to a new vender over the next month or two. (Important to note: we’ll still be handling our books and CDs here as always.) I’ll be letting you know contacts for the new seller soon. The hope is that, when the time comes, you’ll be able to transfer your business there with little or no disruption. Until then you can still order from our catalog as usual.

In the meantime we’ve been selling down our inventory, and with apologies, we’ve run out of some items which will be temporarily unavailable until the new seller is up and running. The most important of these are several types of tuning gears, most notably the left orientation of our economy-priced mid-size tuners (normally used as guitar tuners). The order for more of these has already been placed on behalf of the new vendor, but they won’t be available until late May, a month or more after the time of this writing. So the wish I expressed above for “little or no disruption” won’t be quite true if you’ll be needing those tuners before then, and we apologize for that.

The full information pertaining to the new vender will be posted conspicuously here and on the relevent pages of our online catalog, so when you want hardware items you can simply come to our catalog as usual and the link will be there to bounce you straight over to the new people. And remember we’re still selling lots of great books and CDs here as always!

{ Comments on this entry are closed }

Sad to say, EMI may not go on forever

by Bart on July 25, 2013

Experimental Musical Instruments came into being in 1985. I’ve been keeping it going ever since, and greatly enjoying the work (mostly). Now, close to 30 years later, I hereby announce that I will be … not shutting the enterprise down, but allowing things to slow down a bit as time goes on, as a way of making a bit more space in my life for other things. In practical terms, this means a couple of things.
First, it means – so sorry about this – we won’t always be getting your orders out with quite the same speed and dependability that we’ve striven for up to now. Most of the time your orders will go out same day or next business day, as has been usual. But the times when I’m out of town for one reason or another and orders are delayed until my return – a rare occurrence up to now – will become more frequent. When this is happening, I’ll be sure to make it clear on the catalog pages. If you go to place an order at a time when shipping won’t be immediate, you’ll see a notice to this effect as soon as you arrive in the catalog pages, so you can decide whether or not to go ahead with the order.
The second thing EMI’s slowdown means is that we won’t be bringing new hardware products into inventory, and we’ll be letting some of the ones we carry go out of stock and disappear from the catalog. For instance, we no longer carry either the magentic spot pickups or the oversized bar pickups we once had, nor the Powerjack Preamp, and a few other items. Meanwhile, there are other items that you’ll be able to get from us for quite some time to come — for instance, we have excellent supplies of zither pins, tuning gears, fret wire and piezo films. In particular, we’ll be keeping our many instrument-making books available well into the future. We’ll even be producing the occasional new title. Currently in production: a book describing how to make lamellaphones of all sorts (plucked idiophones such as mbira, kalimba, and contemporary variations).
Thanks to all our customers for supporting us in the past. I hope you’ll continue to do so going forward … but with the knowledge that our turnaround times may not always be as quick and our selection as complete as they have been up to now.

{ Comments on this entry are closed }

Now Available: Nice Noise!

by Bart on October 5, 2012

EMI’s new book on Preparations and Modifications for Guitar

Our new book on strange and wonderful things you can do with your guitar is finally ready! You can find full information here.  

To go with the book, Yuri Landman and I (co-authors) have gathered over 50 sound samples illustrating the effects described in the book and posted them online … you can have a listen here or here.   


{ Comments on this entry are closed }

A Piezo Tab Instrument

by Bart on March 29, 2012

Life gets busy and I rarely get around to posting anything here on the Experimental Musical Instruments news page these days. The lack of posts is certainly not because there’s no news; there are always good things happening in the world of inventive instrument making, and usually at least a few interesting things happening here in the Experimental Musical Instruments office as well.

But I’m back at the keyboard for the moment, and I’ll take the opportunity to write about an instrument I’ve recently made with one of the products we sell. 

The product is the small, inexpensive piezo films, the one-inch ones sometimes called piezo tabs, manufactured by Measurement Specialties Inc.  These little films have a thin layer of piezo material sandwiched between two layers of protective plastic. They’re typically used as contact pickups: attach one of them to a soundboard or other vibrating body with adhesive or double-sided tape and it will convert the board’s vibration into an analogous electronic signal which can be sent to an amplification system. 

When you first wire up one of these little films, before attaching it to an instrument, it’s quite natural to give the film a little flick of the finger just to make sure it’s wired properly and the signal is coming through. I’ve noticed that the resulting sound is kind of cool.  It’s a quick, percussive thump, but with a penetrating sort of resonance.  And it makes a difference how you hold the film while flicking: hold it near the end with just a bit of film extending out freely and it will produce a higher tone; hold it near the base with a longer overhang and the tone is lower.

Naturally this suggests a musical instrument. I designed a system for holding a row of twelve of the film tabs in a one-tier keyboard-like configuration in such a way that the overhanging length of each tab is easily adjustable. The outputs go to a little onboard mixer/preamp velcro’d to the body of the instrument, and from there to a regular musical instrument amplifier.

That’s really all there is to it, but a few more words about the preamp are in order. Two facts about the piezo films come into play here. One is that they produce an extremely high-impedance signal that doesn’t do well with long cable runs, tending to lose strength and fidelity. So, if the playing situation may call for a long distance between the instrument and the main mixer or amp, it helps to have the onboard mixer/preamp which takes the original signal and converts it to lower impedance before sending it on its journey. The other fact is that the piezos suffer a loss of signal strength if you wire too many individual piezos together. With the little onboard mixer, instead of joining the output from all twelve together I was able to join them in smaller subgroups and send them to different mixer inputs.  The mixer buffers the groups from one another and solves too-many-together problem.  The mixer I used (a model called MM-141 made by Nady) has four inputs, so I was able to group the twelve piezos in threes. It also conveniently allows for local volume control and balancing between the subgroups. Little mixers such as this have become fairly affordable and widely available. Within the subgroups, the piezos are best wired together in parallel, not in series.

I’ve now fooled around with the new instrument a bit and even played it once in public. The variously pitched popping sounds make a distinctive addition to any musical stew; standing out without crowding.

I recall that I came up with a good name for the instrument immediately after making it, and now I can’t remember what it was.  Let me know if you have any ideas.

{ Comments on this entry are closed }

Postal Rate Increase

by Bart on January 24, 2012

A lot of people disparage the US Postal Service; I’m not one of them. They provide a remarkably dependable service in a remarkably hassle-free manner at a remarkably low price.

But once in a while, inevitably, those prices go up. The latest postal rate took effect January 24, 2012. Happily for our U.S, customers, we find we can absorb the increase and continue charging the same flat rate shipping fee we’ve been charging on orders shipped within the U.S.  But with reluctance we are rasing the shipping rate on international orders. The flat rate for standard orders will now be US$12.50 for orders shipped to Canada and Mexico, and $16.50 for those shipped anywhere beyond.

We ship most overseas orders by Priority Mail International. Of all available overseas shipping options, this service is by far the best blend of dependability and price, with the emphasis on price. The new US Postal Service cost for shipping their small flat rate boxes to Canada is $12.95, and overseas is $16.95. Just to be nice, we’ve set our new shipping fees a little below that. Thus, you get a fair price for shipping on small orders. Meanwhile, on bulkier orders you get a great price, as we still charge you the same flat rate despite the larger shipping cost we pay.

A moment ago I said that priority mail gives us the best blend of dependability and price for overseas delivery. Now a word is in order about the other half of that equation, dependability. With Prioity Mail and most other services, the US Postal Services delivers packages to the local postal service in the recipient country. The dependability of the delivery then depends on the quality of service there. The results vary widely from one country to another. With most overseas destinations, we’re able to ship with a high degree of confidence. For a others, it sometimes feels like a bit of a gamble. To reduce the risk of a missed delivery, we could use one of the private delivery services such as FEDEX or UPS. These services bypass local postal services, managing the delivery from our door to yours; they provide far better tracking and are generally more timely and dependable. But they cost much more than USPS, and I know from experience that customers definitely balk at those prices.  However, for those occasions when our overseas customers seriously need guaranteed prompt and dependable delivery and are willing to pay for it, we use a service offered jointly by the US Postal Service and FEDEX. In this service, overseas postal services are bypassed as FEDEX manages the overseas end of the delivery.  The service is dependable, prompt, and includes good tracking (and, of course, it’s quite a bit more costly).   This website is not set up to offer this option, but if you want it we can easily arrange it by phone or email.

{ Comments on this entry are closed }

A New Book Coming Soon from Experimental Musical Instruments

We’re currently working on a book-with-audio on the subject of weird stuff you can do to a guitar to get new sounds from it. “We,” in this case, is myself, Bart Hopkin, joined by the Dutch guitar maker and experimenter Yuri Landman.  Yuri’s an excellent collaborator for this project because he’s extraordinarily well versed in the field of guitar preparations, both in his knowledge of what others have done and in his own ideas and explorations.  And as co-authors we complement one another nicely, as he’s most familiar with the world of rock and electric guitar, while my original training was in classical and I’ve always done more with acoustic guitars.

What sort of preparations does the book cover?  Well, they’re quite wide-ranging.  Included are tricks for partially damping the strings, weighting them, adding rattles to them, crossing or snaring them, exciting them in unorthodox ways, adding middle bridges, bringing out peculiar resonances, adding percussion elements to the body of the guitar, manipulating feedback, using external radiation sources through the pickups, and much more. Most of the modifications and preparations discussed are easily put in place and easily removed. Some work best with acoustic guitars, some with electric, many with either or both.  Some produce raunchy sounds, some produce beautiful sounds, some produce comical sounds, some produce really strange sounds.    

The plan is to publish the book in print, with a generous complement of audio examples available to all online. We may also make the book available as a paid digital download, probably in PDF format. The work is coming along nicely at this point and we’re well on the way to completion, but I’ll refrain from giving a definitive date for publication.  Just keep an eye on this spot.

{ Comments on this entry are closed }

Experimental Musical Instruments is a very small business. In some respects it’s a one-man operation (although in other ways it’s not, since so much of what we do involves collaboration). But the one-man description does fit EMI’s office. That means that if I have reason to be off somewhere on other business, then there’s no one here to answer the phone.  So you may find, if you call here, that you get the message center rather than a real person. If you leave a message, I’ll try to get back to you quickly, and your patience will be much appreciated.

{ Comments on this entry are closed }

Can Piezo Films be Trimmed (revisited)?

by Bart on October 4, 2011

YES! (contrary to previous post)

 Some time ago, I posted some notes here on the question of whether the piezo films we sell will still work if you cut them to a smaller size.  What I said was, it can be done in some limited ways, but it’s not recommended because it will destroy the pickup if you snip in the wrong place.  It turns out that I was incorrect in some of my information, and trimming of the films is not so problematic after all, though there still are some caveats. This is good news for a lot of our customers, because there are many situations in which a slightly resized piezo is just what the doctor ordered. My thanks go to Joe Patrick in Michigan for recognizing the possibilities, investigating further, and getting back to me with better information. Here are the details:

In the earlier post I said that the end of the film opposite the lead wires should never be snipped off because, I incorrectly thought, this would break the electrical continuity between the two terminals.  It turns out that this isn’t true; you can snip the film any which way and it will still function. The important caveat is this: the films we sell consist of two layers of piezo material layered over with a protective plastic laminate, and process of snipping frequently creates a short between the two layers of piezo material.  When this happens, the piezo will not function.  To avoid this problem when trimming piezo films, snip cleanly with good, sharp scissors. Then gently smooth the newly cut edge with emery cloth or very fine sand paper.

Next, check the pickup to make sure it’s working. The easiest way to do this is to make a temporary hook-up using two hook-up wires with alligator clips on the ends (these alligator clip wires are available in electronics stores).  Clip one end of each hook-up wire to either the lead wires or the terminals on the piezo film. Clip the other ends to the tip and sleeve of the plug at one end of a standard musical instrument lead cable. Plug the other end of the cable into an amplifier input. Turn up the amp and flick the piezo with a finger verify that the sound is coming through. (If you don’t have alligator leads conveniently on hand, you can try other ways to make the temporary connection between the piezo and the lead cable plug, such as contrivances involving binder clips or clothes pins.)  

If the pickup is not working, turn off the amp, gently re-sand the newly exposed edge, and try again.   

When you’ve got the pickup working dependably, go over the newly cut edge with a clean cloth to remove any possible remaining particles there. Then tape over the edge with cellophane tape, creating layer or two of protection similar to the clear plastic laminate that covers the rest of the film.

{ Comments on this entry are closed }