Nick Francis poses with his DIY, wooden controller – good enough for jazz. Photo: Justin Steyer for Seattle’s KPLU radio.

In a world of disposable computers and electronics, making something “custom” is an antidote to throwaway hardware, a way of putting one’s own handiwork, care, and attention into the object with which you play music. Of course, it’s one thing to say it, and another thing to do it, but Nick Francis falls squarely in the “doer” camp. A jazz-focused radio broadcaster from Seattle’s KPLU, Nick says he’s been chopping up audio since he was doing it with razor blades and tape. Naturally, his digital music controller has the kind of craft in wood that you’d normally find on an acoustic instrument – and his music remixes of choice tend toward artists like Coltrane.

Nick’s work also combines resources from the Web. He says he got started because of a post here on CDM, then went to Livid’s DIY solution, the Builder DIY system, and DJ TechTools’ arcade buttons.

Nick has build details on DJ TechTools, as posted in March:
The Chopper Tone – Classic Arcade Custom Controller [DJ Tech Tools]

Updated: Livid, whose Builder series powered the guts of the project and made it possible, did an extensive Q&A.

And today, he shared his work on his own KPLU radio station site, sharing how he works with remixing classic jazz tunes on the controller.

Mix it up: KPLU music director invents ‘The Choppertone’

Nick shares some additional thoughts for CDM – and I reproduce them, really, because just as he feels indebted to CDM, I feel personally indebted to everyone who shares their work with us on this site and in this community in general:

This project never would’ve happened had I not stumbled upon your website in 2009 or so. I really love your wide-open approach to this whole world of geeks, tinkerers, engineers and artists who make up the core of your community.

Regarding the actual build of the Choppertone, I pretty much covered it in detail in my initial postings to the forums at Livid and DJTT. The whole build process was really challenging, yet extremely rewarding. Nothing beats the feeling of spending months of detailed work on a project, finally getting it done, and then seeing it work!

I basically recorded the video for a few friends who had no idea what controllers were about. I tried to find something simple enough musically to demonstrate it. One of the fun things about jazz is that historically, from the get-go, these musicians were the original “remixers”; they could take a melody, tune or phrase, and tweak it, rearrange it and make it their own. I had been lately been listening to a lot of Fats Waller, so “Honeysuckle Rose” was a good fit. I found at least 20 versions of it in the KPLU library, and chose four that were close to the original key and tempo. From there it was just a few days of chopping everything into 4 bar phrases, then finding the ones that seemed to play well with the others.

As for how I thought the video would be received by the midi controller community, I had no idea. I sensed that this project was going to come off as either really cool…or really stupid. All I knew is that it worked for me.

The positive response to the video has simply blown my mind, and the video’s reach has extended far beyond what I imagined. I could not believe my eyes when I received an email from the Ableton offices in Berlin a few weeks ago. That was so incredibly cool. I’m also quite amused by the many comments regarding my age; I have to tell you that my creative spirit is as vibrant now (at 61) as it was when I was an aspiring film student at UCLA at 21. These days, I’m quite aware that my days on earth are limited and that the present moment is to be savored. That’s all you got.

I imagine a number of the sentiments there will be familiar – and I certainly find interests in our wider community that transcend age (and other) barriers.

Nick says he’s woodshedding so that this is something he can use in live sets. He also says he welcomes questions, so readers, if you’ve got them, let’s hear!

  • zangbang

    Q1. where can i buy your music!!

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    100% pure inspirationally awesome ;)

  • andrew zero

    that is one bad ass diy controller. nick are you considering making any for others? Can i get an autographed one? :D

  • http://www.theabletoncookbook.com Anthony Arroyo

    Really inspiring stuff! Thanks Nick!

  • http://lividinstruments.com Jay

    Great to see this posted here Peter. We did an interview with Nick back in Feb on our site too, worth reading&nbsp ;http://blog.lividinstruments.com/2011/02/23/the-choppertone-a-diy-story/

  • LeMel

    I stumbled upon Nick's work about a month back on youtube. The instrument is beautiful, the music is great, and the open-handed enthusiasm of the artist is refreshing and inspirational.

  • http://noisepages.com/members/hanerlend/ Erlend Dietrich Hand

    The Chopper Tone, and that Builder DIY kit looks so cool! Now I want to gut my old Philicorda organ and have it send wireless MIDI to my Android or iOS instruments!

  • SKent

    Phenomenal device and performance. Standing ovation!

  • Paul

    Now THAT is the kinda thing I really enjoy seeing on CDM :)

  • http://www.jeremyabel.com Jeremy Abel

    Damn that A Loop Supreme one is just excellent! I wonder what this guy's day job is / was…

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    Awesome stuff! Very inspirational cheers!

  • http://www.jazarimusic.com Patrick Flanagan

    Gorgeous controller. Music hardware needs more maple burl.

  • vanceg

    And he's right here in Seattle! I'm going to have to contact Nick – The Decibel Festival here in Seattle sponsors educational lectures and workshops as part of the festival and we've featured Livid in the past. It would be great to get Nick to come talk about his design ideas and theory.

  • Miguel Marcos

    I can't say anything but: Awesome!

  • http://www.soundcloud.com/tehsynes dood

    Nick, Id just like to congratulate you on this great work…

    Fantastic, thanks for sharing.

  • Nick Francis

    Thanks for the kind words, everyone.

    @andrew zero – no, not making any more controllers for now; would rather focus on playing the thing.

    @vanceg – I've been going to the db fest for the last few years, and would love to participate.

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    GET TO THA CHOPPAH! GET TO THA CHOPPAH NOWWW!

    Nick, as a fellow CDM reader who probably has a few more summers behind him than the average demographic found on these pages, I must say you are indeed teh coolness, and an inspiration to us all. Brilliant work, and wonderful source material, I might add…

    Now youkidsgetoffmylawn.

  • http://wingo.la wi_ngo

    Whoa – beautiful, badass controller is badass, but man, 'A Loop Supreme' is pure mash-up genius. Oftentimes they don't impress me all that much… That's how it's done! Wow.

  • Antinet

    Shows the power of deep KNOWLEDGE of a musical style before you start remixing it. Phenomenal. Rarely do I think people remix classic music to be as or more interesting than the original, but this guy's done it. The fact that he did all this in a couple of years and he's older is just icing on the cake. Fantastically tasteful choices. The guy is a star.

  • kueven

    This is inspirational on so many levels. Fantastic work on both the controller and the remixing you do with it!

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  • http://www.urbs.fr axel

    Where is the organic, imprevisible side of jazz in this music? The John Coltrane 4tet was made of 4 individuals improvising music together, interacting in real time. How can a guy triggering and manipulating coarsly samples approach this degree of beauty?

  • shim

    @axel : harsh. nick never claimed to be doing anything more than mashing music he loves.

    to me the most exciting parts are the little dances he's doing while triggering. i love watching peeps groovin to stuff they obviously love. down with pretense!!!

    @nick francis : what ableton skin is that?!

  • Nick Francis

    @shim: I took the theme from DJ Will Marshall, who shared it along with his own Ableton DJ template. Here's a post from him about making your own skins:
    http://marshall-law.co.nz/2010/01/22/ableton-them

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