METRONO.ME interview with Steven Litt / Crudlabs 03/04/2012
Your name and age
Steven Litt. I’m 28 years old.
Birthplace and present location
I was born in and grew up in Allendale, New Jersey. It’s a sleepy suburb about an hour train ride from NYC. I went to college in upstate New York, then moved to Brooklyn in 2006, and I’ve been here ever since. I’ve been in Greenpoint since 2007 and will probably be here until my apartment is replaced by a luxury condo or wine bar.
How long have you been designing and building electronics?
I started doing basic circuit bending and simple Radio Shack synth building in probably 2003. I didn’t understand analog electronics so I didn’t get too far with it at first. But I was just so hypnotized by soldering irons and hookup wire and 9 volt batteries and the promise of bringing noisy electronics and blinky LEDs to life that I just kept at it. I really started to make progress with circuits when I started using PIC microcontrollers in 2006. The first thing I built with them was a machine that sequenced power to three cassette Walkmans playing tape loops, making all kinds of warped patterns. Wish I’d kept that thing.
In 2007 I started grad school at NYU doing design and digital electronics. I learned most of what I now know either while there or while working with other people who went there. But I also learn a lot on my own, I’m always reading electronics books.
How long have you been performing with what you build?
The first shows would have been the handful of random house / basement shows I did in college and in New Jersey, I guess probably 2004-2005, with my pile of circuit bent toys and half broken synths made from whatever they had at Radio Shack. Seems dull now but it was so exhilarating at the time.
The first time I played a show with gear similar to what I build now would’ve been early 2009.
Are you or have you been in any bands?
I’ve never been in a band. Earlier in life, it was because I couldn’t play any traditional instruments, and that’s all any of us in high school in suburban New Jersey understood. Lately it’s because I really want to understand and master the instruments I’ve designed, and I can best do that when I’m all by myself in introspective mode. I’ll probably be a part of a band or long term collaboration project at some point down the road but not in the next year or two.
That said, I’ve done some really awesome one-off collaborations and hope to continue with those. I just came back from a 1.5 year hiatus from music, but right before that I did one-off live collabs with MV Carbon and the Loud Objects. I was really happy to be a part of those. I have one or two other exciting new collabs lined up now and hope to do more after those. I love the idea of being a collaborative freelancer.
Can you tell me anything about the Crudbox, it's design and how you made it?
Crudbox is the name I give to any Arduino sequencer I build that’s designed to control electromechanical devices amplified with contact mics. This project has actually been through many different lives. First it was this thing, then this thing, then this thing, and most recently this thing / these things (video). That’s 2008 to present.
So in 2008 I was in grad school for design and digital electronics at NYU and had no idea what I was doing techwise but I knew I wanted to build a robotic rhythm machine. After a few months I had a crusty aluminum box with an Arduino microcontroller inside and some buttons and vibrating motors on the outside. You’d hit some of the buttons on the box and it would make a crude pattern of switching on and off the motors, and I’d amplify it with a contact mic and feed it through my DOD Death Metal pedal, since I liked the sound and didn’t know how to build a preamp.
Every interation since then has been one step closer to what I want it to be. The next one controlled solenoids (robotic punching mechanisms) and had a traditional, easy to understand step sequencer interface. Then the next version worked pretty much the same, but was built with actual printed circuit boards and a nice custom laser cut enclosure designed to fit in a suitcase and travel, and could also save a small number of drum patterns to internal memory.
Those, the first three, are pretty easy to explain. The new one is endlessly reconfigurable modular system that I can only begin to explain here and encompasses many design ideas I’ve had over the years. Basically, rather than being stuck with a 16 step sequencer or being limited to 8 solenoids / outputs as before, you connect any number of sequencer modules, output modules, or whatever else modules, with MIDI cables, and the system will automatically configure itself for them. You make one long daisy chain of all the little modules. If you plug into 3 solenoid modules, or 50 solenoid modules, it will figure that out and let you switch between all of them, however many you have. If you plug in 3 16 step sequencer modules, it will make a single continuous 48 step sequencer. There’s a few other modules that do obvious things like control the tempo and the current channel, and fancier ones that make the whole system into a single MIDI slave device, and another that allows you to save and load patterns from a removable SD card. I’m also planning to build more modules to make the sequencer control cassette Walkmans, turntables, strobe lights, etc, in place of solenoids.
The main idea is that any time I have an idea for a new feature or module I can just program it in Arduino and spend 45 minutes soldering and make it a reality very quickly.
It may be overwhelming to read about it but its actually extremely simple to use when you sit down in front of it. I was sharing it with two strangers with no understanding of electronic music hardware this morning and they went from clueless to making beats in about 2 minutes.
Is everything proprietary and personal, or are you open source, and do you have info on how to duplicate your designs anywhere online or in print?
I strive to make everything open source. You can actually download the complete Arduino source code, 3d printable files, PCB designs, and parts lists for my new project here. Unfortunately I’m just getting started with sharing, and this is a big project, so unless you actually know how to deal with all that information you won’t be able to build any of it. I’ll probably get around to making tutorials and stuff after a few more people bug me about it.
Who are your influences in general, for your creations, for your music and in general, artistically?
I’m generally inspired by artists who create their own languages, their own self contained worlds, or even their own genres. Here’s a few that come to mind, some new, some old, in no real order:
Richard D. James, Autechre, Squarepusher, Arthur Russell, Walter Gibbons, The Ramones, The Misfits, early noise artists especially Merzbow, Caroliner Rainbow, Pan Sonic, Excepter, Drexciya, Ryoji Ikeda, Survival Research Labs, super early hip hop culture as documented in the movie Style Wars, Scharpling and Wurster, David Lynch, David Cronenberg’s Crash, Repo Man, They Live, old sci fi and monster movies like Them! and Forbidden Planet, Charles Bukowski, Michael Gira’s book The Consumer, Unique art and design books, Flatland, construction sites, Arduino, Makerbot Industries, accessible open source hardware innovators, big messy tangles of cables and hookup wire.
Any other favorite pedals or music items you're into?
Aside from custom hardware I’ve built myself, and a few mixers, and stuff that’s broken, I own only a few pieces of gear, but every one is sort of a favorite: an MPC 1000, a Sherman Filterbank, A Lexicon Vortex, a Crumar Stratus, a Boss delay pedal and some Digitech and DOD Death Metal pedals.
Where have you performed?
I’ve only done a handful of shows ever. Most recently Shea Stadium. I think my last shows before that, which were I think over a year and a half ago, were at Issue Project Room, Silent Barn, and 92Y Tribeca.
What are your favorite and least favorite venues?
Don’t have a least favorite, yet. Favorite is anywhere where the crowd is engaged.
Most embarrassing experience? Most awesome?
Most awesome was probably the guy who came up to me after a show I did at Union Pool and told me all about his time as a roadie for Einstürzende Neubauten. Generally though its just totally awesome to have a crowd that’s engaged.
Nothing too embarassing, yet, but there’s still time. I felt kind of embarassed this one time I played at this kinda big art and technology gallery event and the art crowd just talked loudly over my set the whole time.
Do you have a day job? What is it?
I do various programming and related work as a freelancer. Web stuff, software, hardware, microcontrollers, basically any time anyone comes to me with a project using some language or system I’ve never used I just tell them I’ll figure it out as we go and it usually works out pretty well. I’ve actually never had a steady 40 hour day job for more than a few weeks and still can’t fathom that most people spend a third or more of their adult life at an office. I’m really lucky to have good tech skills and to be able to spend most work days at home next to a big sunny window at my adjustable standing desk with my nice speakers and my cat. Not that getting by as a freelancer isn’t a lot of work, it is.
Do you play any other instruments ?
Nope. I think that’s how this all started.
Do you collect anything or are you a minimalist?
I collect records when I have money. I think of 12” LPs the way some people think of paintings. And mp3s, if that counts.
What was the last book you read?
I think it was Flatland. Even if it wasn’t, I highly recommend Flatland.
What are you currently listening to that you're really into?
Some recent music I’ve been into is the Container self titled LP on Spectrum Spools, Demdike Stare, Shackleton, Andy Stott’s two recent albums, Pan Sonic and Mika Vainio solo, most beat-oriented Raster Noton stuff, and Cut Hands. I also really love classic disco and lately have been listening to archives of this fantastic disco radio show called Future Music From The Past.
Do you watch TV or listen to the radio at all? Any favorite shows or broadcasts?
Not much TV. I listen to internet radio almost every day, usually WFMU and Intergalactic.fm. If I had to pick favorites, I’d go with Strength Through Failure with Fabio and the Bryce show on WFMU. I also really appreciate the meta talk radio stylings of Scharpling and Wurster on The Best Show on WFMU.
Where do you go to discover new sounds/music?
I listen to WFMU and Intergalactic.fm all the time. I read as many music blogs as I have time for, mostly looking for experimental, classic dance music, and any kind of psychedelic stuff. I’m really happy to consider anything I have the time for, even top 40 and the WKTU cheese party that going on in all the local bodegas.
Been to any good shows lately?
I actually haven’t been to a show in months, aside the show I played at Shea Stadium last weekend. I would definitely say that was a good show. I’ve been hibernating since I started the new Crudbox last October, can’t even remember. I go to The Bunker at Public Assembly every couple months, those are always good. And I’m really excited for the Unsound Festival coming this May.
Describe a day in the life of Steven Litt.
Wake up between 8 and 9 am, feed the cat and go for a walk around my neighborhood. Come home and do some of my freelance work. Get distracted by something. Find some good music to listen to. Continue working at my computer until I decide I’ve done enough for the day. Then spend the rest of the day soldering, building, playing, testing, researching, or otherwise planning the new Crudbox. If I’m lucky my girl will stop by at some point and we’ll either work side by side on our projects or we’ll go out and do something fun like drive to Home Depot.
What does your family think of your art and do they support you? Do they have any idea what you do?
Yeah, they’re super supportive. My Mom is an interior decorator, and my Dad has his own business driving around fixing people’s computers in suburban NJ. I’ve always felt like my interests somehow grew from theirs.
Any advice for people who are starting out building electronic projects and creating music/noise/art with them?
Understanding electronics is difficult, especially at first. Designing and building circuits is only for people with a good deal of patience. When things you build don’t work, it can be frustrating. But if you really want to do it, its worth it.
Any parting words or pearls of wisdom you'd like to share with whoever's reading this interview?
We live in an age of endless artistic and cultural cross pollination. Rather than stagnate with retroism, revivalism, genre-ism, we should all strive to ignore borders and labels and find our own unique voices as artists.
Also if anyone out there is in the NYC area and either wants to see any of this stuff in person or wants to be a beta tester for new Crudbox feel free to drop me a line at lab[atatat]crudlabs[dotdotdot]org.
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