It all started with party planning. I decided to have a summer grillin’ bash, which is obviously a good idea in the first place. Of course, I invited Greg Wilder, and he immediately said, “what if I played ambient music the whole time?”

Thus, the Ambient Grill was born. Or, the concept was born. The Ambient Grill itself is still in the ether, as both dates were rained out. So now it’s going to be a pop-up Ambient Grill, which will happen on some perfect Saturday a bit later this summer.

But it’s already made a huge difference in my life! To tell you why, I’ll step back in time a bit….

The Backstory

I’ve always kinda wanted be a looping solo musician. For lots of reasons, I’ve never made it happen — mostly, I get stuck in studio mode, and end up whiling away my musical energy in my studio. And it’s pretty clear why. Studios are amazing. So why would I force myself to play with only an instrument or two and a super-limited looping pedal?!?

And yet…the desire to loop persisted.

Enter the Ambient Grill. The perfect low-key opportunity to loop to my heart’s content. And I even had a single-pedal Boss looper. Let’s DO THIS!

Before I go on, I should tell you that I don’t know much of anything about ambient music. I’ve never made ambient music on purpose (although someone did once categorize something of mine as “ADHD Ambient,” which I thought was pretty cool). I don’t really listen to ambient music. I don’t dislike it, but I don’t typically listen to music while I’m doing other things, and I don’t find most music that would be classifed as “ambient” to be engaging enough to sit and listen to.

That said, I thought an ambient set might be a good way in to low-stakes, low-tempo looping, and a party where everyone is grilling and listening to ambient music sounds super chill. So I said to Greg, “how about if I play too?” In short, I committed myself. The route to so much self-improvement and learning.

The Evolution of a Setup

Choosing the gear and figuring out how i wanted to set it up was a lot of fun. To start, I knew that I wanted guitar to be my primary instrument because:

  1. washy, verbed out slow guitar moves are awesome,
  2. my dearly beloved cousin Scott, who passed away last year, gave me his Les Paul, and I hadn’t had a chance to connect with it yet, and
  3. I’ve been wanting to spend a lot of time playing guitar to get back some of the dexterity I’ve let slide over the years.

Scott also gave me an amp alongside the guitar. Having this in the living room recently has been really great, and made it easy for me to start looping. And I figured a hilarious and awesome 80s Boss drum machine would give me a good excuse to use my Midronome master MIDI clock device, and would be way better than a click track. So here’s the initial setup:

A Fender amp, Les Paul Studio, and drum machine sit in the corner of a room, framed by two windows. Two dogs sleep on a nearby couch.
Peanut and Pepper are so ambient. Also pictured: Fender amp, Boss RC-5 Loop Station, Boss something-old drum machine, and a Les Paul Studio

I spent a couple of weeks with this setup. During that time, I improved my looping skills and enjoyed some guitar gains (har har), but I got pretty frustrated with the limitations of the Boss RC-5 looping pedal. First, it wasn’t playing nice as a MIDI slave. Second, I wanted to be able to mix my loops, which this tiny looper can’t do. So I did what any red-blooded American does in this situation: reader, I went shopping.

Enter the Aeros Loop Studio by Singular Sound. Talk about a step up! Not only from the small and mighty RC-5, it even looked WAY better than the comparably feature-laden Boss RC-505, which I bought and returned a couple of years ago because I just couldn’t get into the flow with it.

So yes, the fact that I’m writing about discovering it does indeed mean that I bought one. And it is absolutely the Cadillac of looping pedals. That thing is so fun, and deserves a blog post all its own. Since I’ll never write one, I’ll just say it’s got everything I would want in a looping pedal: immediacy, up to 6 tracks, 6 sections (because FORM IS IMPORTANT, PEOPLE), a great touchscreen with clear visual feedback, and a really nice hands-free interface. Highly recommend if you’re looking for something like that.

But if you give me six tracks, I probably don’t want to fill them completely with guitar. Because SYNTHS. BEATS. YES. Sooo, I would need some device made to mix and route audio signals….like…hey, how about a mixer?!

This story is getting long and needlessly complex.

Now, to go back in time again (this post is getting really Inception-y): a couple of years ago, when I last pursued a live looping setup, I bought a 12-channel Soundcraft mixer with the most incredible routing options for a mixer in its class/size. In particular, one feature was CRUCIAL to my conception of how I wanted to loop: it has a totally separate bus that I could send to the looper at the push of a button. And to complement that feature, there’s another per-channel button that lets you choose whether to send that channel to the master bus or not. So, in essence, this fairly compact mixer gives you push-button options to send each channel to the mains, the looper, both, or neither. Wow.

(Sorry for that routing geek-out. If you skipped or skimmed it, I congratulate you for your wise choices about how you spend your time.)

So back to the present, I was REALLY glad to have this mixer around, and to really have a chance to use it for its intended purpose. And it worked brilliantly! So here’s my second setup:

You won’t find two more ambient dogs than these. Also pictured: a pedalboard, a Soundcraft mixer, a Yamaha Reface CP baby electric piano sim, and the other gear from the first setup. The Aeros looper hadn’t yet arrived at this moment, so I’m still using the Boss looper.

For the keyboard addition, I chose to add the Yamaha Reface CP, which is a great little keyboard that emulates a few of the great electric pianos and has awesome knob-per-function effects.

This setup sounded fantastic, but I was having a hard time creating the sweeping ambient synths I was imagining. Because, um, electric pianos don’t do that.

I was racking my brain trying to figure out how to fit one of the synths in my studio AND a keyboard in a tiny space, and I couldn’t figure out. So, um, I went shopping again. Don’t hit me.

The last piece of the puzzle (for now, until I change it) was a Hydrasynth Explorer, which is a totally amazing, powerful poly-synth with an incredible tiny keyboard. (Poly after-touch + release velocity sensitivity on mini-keys?!)

Now, this is not my favorite-sounding synth in the universe. However, for live shows, that’s not necessarily all that matters. It’s very good sounding, it’s got an incredible interface, it’s tiny and it’s a sound design dream machine. So it came into the final picture:

It’s all gotten to be too much for Peanut and Pepper. This is all the gear from the last photos, plus a Hydrasynth and a Roland SP-404mkii sampler.

I also added my Roland SP-404mkii sampler to the mix, because who doesn’t want to trigger long field recordings and effect them in an ambient set?

And THIS setup, people, is GOLD. I have had so much fun the last couple of weeks. My looping has improved, my guitar skills are re-emerging, and I just enjoyed the hell out of my time playing music in this particular way. It was kinda hard to keep myself in “ambient” territory, but you can’t hold that against the setup.

Sadly, today, because of two rainy weekends in a row, I tore down this gorgeous corner before having played live with this setup. But I’m ready to go for that perfect Ambient Grill weekend.

But what now? Welp, I’ve had so much fun looping that I kept the corner of loops, going back to a more simplistic guitar looping concept. I think I’m going to play post-ambient music for awhile.

Pepper is ready to loop. She’s even made herself into a circle, see?

Currently, I’m dog-sitting my mom’s two little dogs — Annie, a senior dachshund mix, and Ludi (Ludwig van Beethoven), a 9-month-old dachshund puppy. Combine them with my two little mutts and you’ve got a pile o’ dogs. Ludi is still very much a puppy, which makes it a bit difficult to spend time in the studio, where there’s no way I’ll be able to pay attention to what he’s doing. I fear for all the things (cords! guitars! subwoofer! bins of cables!). In fact, during the writing of this post, his behavior caused me need to search “stimming for dogs,” which should tell you something.

Four small dogs on beds and blankets in front of a wood stove
It’s a dog’s world, and I’m just living in it.

So today will be for writing in various forms: blog post(s), and working on a minimum viable score for my upcoming show in Chicago with my lovely friend Henna Chou. Here’s the blurb about what we’re doing:

Alison Wilder (electronics) + Henna Chou (cello), reuniting after 20 years of long-distance musical friendship, will premiere “On Sand,” a 3-movement improvisational electroacoustic work that asks questions like “what if we rejected language after it hurt us the first time?” and “how can we remember and tell stories without bodies?”

For my part, I’ve been working on crafting a setup that will allow for about 40 minutes of improvisational music that Henna and I can create in real time together. Although we’ve been long distance friends for 15 or 20 years, to the best of either of our memories, we’ve never played music together before. (Well, short of a hedonistic moving drum circle that spontaneously occurred very late at night after a transcendent show where both of our bands opened for a really great Swedish band. If I’m recalling correctly, which I absolutely may not be.)

Because I am who I am, and putting together sound worlds is kind of my thang, I’ve been working to create a series of sound worlds that we can live in for those 40 minutes. Difficulty level: I want to actually perform music instead of button-pushing. Challenging! Although it would be easiest to throw some droney pads and weird samplers into Ableton and call it a day, I’m attempting a more songwriterly/composerly approach to the piece. That means that, instead of just showing up and jamming, I’m putting in some serious effort.

Last time I played a full-on improvisational/noise/experimental show was…we’ll just say “awhile back.” And “showing up and jamming” is a pretty apt description of the approach I took to these sorts of shows back then! 🙂

The date on the photos says 2009, which…maaaybe is correct? I performed John Zorn’s Cobra with a big, fun group led by Dan Blacksberg at the Rotunda, a delightful community arts space in West Philly. In those days, I wouldn’t have dreamed of using a computer to do a show like this. That said, this was a minimal setup for me — a Nord Electro and a couple of pedals.

This Cobra show is coming up for me at the moment because, in my memory, it’s emblematic of modern experimental improvisational music: it was an absolute blast to perform, sometimes even felt transcendent, but I don’t think it could stand the re-listening test. Meaning, when you listen back to a recording, that transcendence is gone, and the music is either boring, or muddled, or pure chaos, or has fleeting moments of music surrounded by not-really-music. (To be fair, I don’t have a recording of this performance and am relying my memory. Maybe it really was music, all the way through.)

So, as you may have guessed by now, I have complicated feelings about modern improvisational music. On the one hand, conceptually, I find it to be extremely compelling, for all the reasons improvising is GREAT. On the other hand, it almost always falls short for me, musically. Please note that this is 100% personal and not a reflection on the (stupid and useless) question of “What Is Objectively Good Music?”

Pierre Schaeffer, my favorite musique concrète composer, wrote that he never felt like he reached his goal of making actual music with found sound. His statement is complicated by his historical position in the world of 20th-century European art music, but given that my training took place in that world too, I understand what he meant. Music can provide a unique and glorious sense of mental play. But making that happen generally isn’t easy, even using tools that are meant to do it (tools like organs and…shudder…saxophones). Trying to make it happen with bits of environmental sound is almost impossible.

Of course, the piece I’m working on to perform with Henna has the advantage of modern computing. Take that, Pierre! I’m using Ableton with a Push controller and creating a project that allows me to treat the session like one big instrument…no pre-recorded sequences allowed. I’m using some bits of pre-recorded music, but I’m using them more like found sound to be woven with, not as a complete tapestry unto themselves. (Sorry for the gooey poetic language, I can’t think of less pretentious-sounding way to say it at the moment.)

I’m also using a couple of soft synths and/or Max patches, possibly sometimes controlled by an EWI, depending on whether I have time to work it in. I’m wishing for my hardware synths every time I work on the piece, but I’m definitely not taking any synths on the plane this time.

I’m super grateful that Henna asked me to do this show, because preparing for it has forced my hand in terms of figuring out a way to perform live in a way that satisfies my current musical inclinations. While I’m probably not mostly going to perform in the experimental/improvisational music setting (although who knows!), the tools and methods I’m coming up with for this show are almost completely transferable to the sorts of music I make as Blix Byrd, and with Doctor Body.

So once this Chicago show is wrapped, I’ve decided that, instead of taking all the material I’ve started for the next Blix Byrd release directly into the studio, I’m going to work it up as a live show first. This is a direction I’ve wanted to go in for awhile, and I’ve worked hard to make my studio/life ready for this sort of approach, so I’m thrilled to see a path to do it

So if you’re reading this and want a Blix Byrd and/or Doctor Body show in, say, six months, hit me up. Hopefully I won’t have to take any mother fucking synths on any mother fucking planes.

This week, Greg and I released Misalignment, our first LP as our duo Doctor Body. My favorite quote so far: “Part shimmering sonic collage, part experimental dream pop, all hauntingly catchy.”

I’m so thrilled to get this album out in the world. It’s honestly my favorite thing I’ve ever worked on. This has been true of lots of projects over the years (thank goodness), but I REALLY REALLY mean it this time.

Why is this one so special? A few reasons…

  • Greg and I have finally found a way to work together on music, and it’s absolutely worth the years of trying different things that have failed. We each did the things that we’re good at, and come naturally to us.
  • This is the first time I’ve been able to incorporate my songwriting into music that’s slightly abstract in a way that I think is successful.
  • Greg’s mix/master job blows me away. I honestly don’t think anyone could have done it better…it sounds FANTASTIC.
  • THAT BASS SOUND. (<3 Yamaha CS-15D)
  • It’s a slow burn that requires attention and multiple listens. (This is a good thing, although it also makes it harder to promote.)
  • The album art is by a favorite local artist of mine, Robert Seaman. He’s an incredible elder gentleman who found inspiration (and an audience!) creating a Doodle a Day during COVID…and beyond. I have two of his works adorning my wall, and couldn’t be more thrilled with this very alive, strange, and architectural work as the album cover. <3
  • I absolutely love the music. The end.

Hope you give it a listen and enjoy it! It’s slowly oozing out to all the streaming services too, so search it out wherever you listen.

Live studio recording of a synth solo featured on “Misalignment” from Doctor Body. (@doctorbody) Search DOCTOR BODY on Bandcamp for more!

Having decided the 3rd Wave from Groove Synthesis can function as an expressive and very playable lead synth, it’s time to put it up against two of the biggest and baddest lead synths out there… the Moog Subsequent 37 and the immutable Yamaha CS-30.

Can the 3rd Wave hold it’s own against these prizefighters? Only one way to find out!

Taking multiple poly and mono synths on stage brings numerous challenges. Extra instrument routings, complex effect chains, extended setup and take down times, ergonomic impossibilities… the list goes on.

Can we simplify by getting a modern wavetable polysynth to stand in for one of the best monosynths Moog ever produced?

Can I enter the studio, write and sequence a short piece, record it, edit the video, AND take young Scully for a walk on the snowy cabin trails… all in under 120 minutes?

You Betcha. Hats off to the Squarp Hapax and Yamaha DM1000.

Live studio recording of the synth solo featured on “Faster Than My Brother” from Doctor Body. (@doctorbody) Look for the upcoming album in the early spring of 2024.

Mixing it up with the Groove Synthesis 3rd Wave, Moog Matriarch, and the unstoppable Yamaha CS-30. After pushing the AX80 to its outer limits to discover its unique personality quirks, I wanna know if Akai’s first synthesizer from 1984 can lead a pack of notoriously HUGE instruments.

And there’s only one way to find out…

Is the Akai AX80 a handsome but boring instrument? Not so fast.

This gorgeous brute has mastered things other synths can’t touch. Simply put, the AX80 has a strong personality. But to find it, you’ll have to push it to the outer limits of what the engine was built to do.