Tools Crew Live: Bill Van Loo
Bill Van Loo is a polymath.
“The description I use to describe to people what I do is I’m a maker, teacher, musician, and photographer,” he said, “and at any given point in my life, one or more of those areas is going to be more prevalent or in the forefront than others.”
In the late ‘90s and early 2000s, Van Loo was part of the Detroit techno scene, including performing on the Underground Stage in 2000 at the first Detroit Electronic Music Festival, the now-legendary electronic-music event now known as Movement. He released most of his music on his own chromedecay label, and was part of a collective called Thinkbox, which created audio-visual multimedia performances and performed at the Movement Festival in 2003 and Montreal’s huge Mutek fest in 2004.
But for much of the past decade-plus, Van Loo has focused on his teaching career. He’s currently the technology, engineering, and design educator at A2 STEAM, the three-year-old K-8 school that has a heavy focus on project-based learning and tech. At the end of 2016, Van Loo finished his master’s degree in educational media and technology from Eastern Michigan University -- and suddenly found himself with enough free time to bring music to the forefront once again.
Van Loo’s currently working on new material in his home studio and hopes to release an EP or mini-LP on Bandcamp in the spring. We took advantage of Van Loo's sudden return to music by having him be the featured artist in our second Tools Crew Live video series where we have musicians use gear from the Ann Arbor District Library's Music Tools collection to create jams. (Fred Thomas was our first artist, which you can view here.)
Van Loo recorded the videos on January 3 and on February 16 we talked about the songs he performed -- one techno banger, one ambient guitar bliss-out -- and the gear he chose.
Q: How much of the music you created in the videos is improvised?
A: The performance I did for the library had varying levels of improvisation. The more electronic dub-techno thing, I had taken that gear home, I tried some things out, I had a sense of where it was going to go. Like, I had a sequence saved on one of the keyboards that I knew I could trigger and it would sound good. I found a patch on the Juno module I liked.
I had the advantage of having a week to bring the gear home and play with it. So, when I brought that set of gear back with the pieces that I had, the Juno I had it already set on that patch. With the TB-3 bassline synth, I had that sequence already programmed. The Microbrute [keyboard], same kind of thing. So, I had those things set. But being able to go back to a specific sound is really important, and that’s in some ways one of the reasons I’ve gone back to using software-based synthesis.
There ended up being a couple loops for the guitar performance. I prerecorded a couple little loops on guitar just before the performance on the OP-1 [synth] and I started the performance using those loops because there’s fun things you can do with the OP-1, like changing the tape speed to lower it an octave and looping over just little portions of it. And you get some nice tactile control on the OP-1 with the knobs and the interface it has. That one is very much a descendant of menus and it depends on what mode you’re in -- the knobs do this or another thing. So, I single-purposed it and played it as a set of tape loops, so the four knobs were either just volume or playing with the tape speed to drop it down. And then I started doing some live looping with the Boss RC-30 pedal. I tend to use a lot of delay, and I sometimes use a really long delay -- which is kind of the Frippertronics thing, using a long delay with a really high feedback time and a long delay time to loop stuff and keep that going to sustain tones.
My challenge for the guitar piece was to take my pedal board ... and I would take all of my pedals off and replace them with all the library's pedals, but I was trying to find ones that would pretty closely replicate [my regular setup]. So, I got a distortion -- I use a clone of the Obsessive Compulsive drive, so I dropped in a regular [OCD Distortion pedal] from the library. I used the Phase 90 pedal because I love it and I don’t own it yet -- but I’ve borrowed it a few times -- because you get some nice, ambient swooshy stuff. The delay pedal was the Wampler [Faux Echo Tape pedal]. The RC-30 loop pedal does something I don’t perfectly have in my set up, so the RC-30 could be there just for live looping and the Echo Tape was there to do delays as well. On my own pedal board, I only have a delay -- and it can be a delay or a looper, but not both at the same time. The nice thing about the RC-30 is it doesn’t have a screen; it plugs in like a regular guitar pedal and fits on the pedal board nicely, and it’s designed and optimized for foot control. I did play with the faders and the knobs on it during the performance. I like that pedal a lot because it’s really simple and purpose built.
Q: You could have made the techno song entirely on the computer. What is it about using physical gear that you like -- is it the tactile response?
A: That’s exactly what it is. There have been sample sets of the TR-808 for tons of years. I’ve never owned a real 808, but I’ve loved that bass drum sound forever. The debate is 808 vs. 909 -- and for me, it’s always the 808. I love the deep boom of that, and I like the hard kick of the 909 for things, but if I had to choose between the two for the rest of my life, I’d go with the 808. The nice thing about the TR-8 is that it has all those individual faders for each individual drum sound -- just for the bass drum, the snare, the clap -- so I can have everything programmed and going on at once, but I can use those faders to bring stuff in and drop stuff out when I want. And there’s a built-in delay on the TR-8, which gave a fun little effect on a couple portions just to change things up or repeat a sound.
I’ve checked out the Microbrute a couple of times. That’s a perfect example of "you could do all this in software," but it goes back to that one-to-one control. It’s got however many faders and knobs on the front panel and they all do that one thing.
Having done electronic music for a long time, I've got a pretty good understanding of synthesis, so I know that set of controls, what that will give me. ... I know I can shape that sound in the way I want, and knowing that’s always available on the front panel [of the Microbrute] is really, really fun. It’s a quirky little instrument in a few ways. It’s got a micro patch bay, and it’s monophonic, so it’s good for bass lines and weird little sounds. It’s got a sequencer that I’ve mostly figured out now. I was entirely playing that live. The thing’s that’s cool about that is that it has a little sequencer where it will store a sequence of notes, but then there’s a mode where you can press a key and trigger that set of notes, and if you press different keys it will transpose that sequence to different keys. But because it takes MIDI clock in, it was always synched to whatever else was happening. I think maybe the TR-8 was the master of the whole thing.
If you look at the gear I used for the library performance, I could have played an entire thing just off the Novation Circuit. It has two synthesizers, it has a full drum machine, it has some effects. I could have done an improvisation just on the [Novation], but what was nice about having all the different gear, each piece could be dedicated to its own thing, much like parts in a band that some people might do. The TB-3 was just acting as that bass synth line. The TR-8 was just that set of drums. The Circuit I had programmed just one little synth thing on.
My first really nice keyboard was a Roland Juno 60, and that Juno module the library [lends to patrons] has almost the exact same sound. I used [the Juno 60 on a bunch of records, I’ve played that thing for tons of hours, and I think Roland did a really good job of re-creating that. So, learning the synthesis process ... on hardware with dedicated controls, where you could change a parameter and hear how it affected the sound immediately. So, it’s nice to see that set of sounds available because you can now get that experience of getting it on a one-to-one basis instead of on a computer screen. ... It’s a lot more immediate to just reach out and push a fader or twist a knob. The nice thing is, if you learn it on physical gear, then going into the computer and looking at a software synthesizer that basically has the same controls makes a lot of sense then.
Music Tools on “Downtown Guitar Improvisation”:
➥ Teenage Engineering OP-1 synthesizer
➥ Fulltone OCD Distortion pedal
➥ Boss RC-30 Looper pedal
➥ Faux Echo Tape pedal
➥ MXR M101 Phase 90 pedal
Other Tools used to create the videos:
➥ IKAN FLY-X3 PLUS Smartphone Gimbal Stabilizer
➥ Chauvet DJ Intimidator Spot Led 150 lights (coming this summer!)
Christopher Porter is a Library Technician and editor of Pulp.
For more about Bill Van Loo and his various pursuits, visit his personal website, billvanloo.com, and his label's website, chromedecay.org. He's also been posting snippets of his new music on chrome decay's Instagram account.