Lego Watt Balance Soundtrack Watt's up Doc?/Watt the Funk?!


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The songs this month will eventually be used as soundtrack material for a video being produced by the National Institute of Standards and Technology's Physical Measurement Laboratory. NIST/PML is home to my day job, and where I have the priviledge of leading a group of talented scientists and engineers who take care of many of the basic electrical measurement standards for the US, like the standard of resistance, and the standard of capacitance. We also do an amazingly complicated experiment to measure the Planck constant. This experiment is being developed to become our standard of mass, and it has been the subject of numerous articles in the popular press, including a spot on Radio Lab. Recently, we built a version of this experiment out of Legos as a fun demo that we hope will stimulate discussion, thinking, and ultimately understanding of the way the world of measurement is about to change. It's all pretty exciting, but more complicated than I want to get into here. If you are interested in this topic you should geek out at this link http://www.nist.gov/pml/si-redef/

For those of you who want your science to be more entertaining, there will soon be a very cool video about the Lego watt balance. The video is being done as a tongue in cheek infomercial with some great soundtrack music provided by yours truly. I'll post the link here when it goes public.

For now, I'll talk about the songs, the guitar, and the recording session

About the songs:

Watt's up Doc is me having some fun playing Django chords and trying to channel the Spike Jones music I loved in Bugs Bunny cartoons growing up. I sure as heck can't play Django leads, but I have a lot of fun with hot club style rhythm. In fact, it was this style of music that was my entry point into the world of jazz. I am not much of a jazz player, I don't have the chops, but gypsy jazz has been a gateway drug for developing me as a listener and appreciater of the music. I never expected to say Thelonius Monk rocks my world, but Round Midnight is straight up genius.

Watt the Funk?! is a very simple groove that is something I've been playing for my own enjoyment for several years now. In my head, I have a full band arrangement that mixes elements of So era Peter Gabriel with Traffic era Steve Winwood. Here, I just was aiming for a groove and to enjoy the sounds of the guitar. In the performance for the actual recording, I played to a click track, so that my chronic inability to keep a steady beat was somewhat mitigated! I need a drummer!

About the guitar:

This month finds me back playing one of my favorite guitars, my 1938 Vega C66 that I had restored by luthier Mark Brumitt from Richmond Va. Mark did a refret, fixed the binding, and adjusted the string spacing to give me a little more room for fingerstyle playing. The C66 is a carved archtop I bought on Ebay for more money than I should have given the crumbly binding, but a lot less than a Gibson L7, which I consider this to be a reasonable substitute for. Okay, I'd love an L7. But I can have three Vega's for the price of an L7, even paying a luthier to do some serious work. And anyone who heard my other blond Vega (a plywood version with one of the earliest pickups known to man) played through that Orange amplifier at the last Claude Pate reunion knows these Vegas can be killer rock n roll machines. This Vega is carved and would feedback like crazy if I tried to rock out on it, but for jazz and 60's style R and B it is sweet. So how is it my other Vega from the same year is such a rock monster? Plywood versus tone wood. Listen to how good the C66 sounds without amplification in the video. What makes it great for acoustic playing, makes it challenging for getting loud.

About the recording session:

The tracks that will be the sound track were recorded at Shab Row with Doug Smith and Lego watt video producer Jenny Lee. It was great fun, and as I mention in the video, we made use of the fact that the C66 gives us two guitar sounds simply by micing the guitar and the amplifier. Jenny needed me to play to a click track, which was admittedly a pretty big challenge for me. For the video posted here, I simply set up the family video cam, pressed go, and started playing what I could remember from the recording session. Normally, Doug uses a Canon digital camera, some mood lighting in the studio, and a board mix using some very nice microphones to make me sound better than I am. Here, you are getting me in all my low fi splendor. Yes, I know I cut my head off. I tend to think people want to see the guitar and my hands. If I do this by myself again, I'll try to frame things a little better...

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