Discovering Alien Communication or: EMI-Electric Guitar Soundscapes

It was an accident a few months ago… I was standing in my bedroom with my Stratocaster and “Maggot Brain” playing in the background, casually pretending I was Eddie Hazel. I was getting a pretty good sound with fuzz into wah into reverb... EXCEPT that stupid weird clicky alien noise popping up every so often. Ugh.

That was my phone in my pocket, only a few inches away from the single coil pickup of the guitar, with the distortion effects compressing and emphasizing the nuances of the interference. I held the phone up to the pickup- it actually sounded pretty cool, now that I knew what it was and wasn’t plagued by it.

This idea was rattling around for a while… I felt it had some use for live looping as well as sampling ambient/glitchy sounds. When MHacks came up, I decided to dive into it a bit more and try to expand on the possible sounds I could get from the phone.

Our team was my friend Nate Jones and I. I brought my electric guitar and a headphone amp, pulled up a spectrogram in Ableton, and we started messing with it. We got some amusing looks from the nearby hackers as we peered over the Stratocaster on the table, waving smartphones over the strings like cyberpunk Hendrix voodoo-worshipers.

I was assuming the phone’s antennas were the source of the noise. Having witnessed the infamous ‘phone near audio cable gets a text message and causes annoying buzz’ problem, I thought this was something similar. Also pulling up a youtube video caused the noise to get louder, so that made sense. Several hours later we turned on a developer setting that flashed the screen on UI updates, and the spectogram went nuts in tandem with the flashing. It was the screen! With some CPU noise as well, we later discovered. The capacitive touchscreen might have something to do with it also.

This made development a lot easier. I was digging for root-access frameworks to send raw UDP packets or wifi beacons independent of the network connection, which was looking pretty hard. Now we just get to play with the display! Our app ended up being pretty simple, having spent most of the time just reproducing stuff. It causes screen redraw at different configurable rates, experimenting with dots and full screen flashes. It’s pretty much a busy-box toy- check out the repo here. (.apk in /Release/)

Now that the app did something, time for the fun part- playing with it on the pedalboard. This is where you can really get creative. I think this concept could be great for guitar players with big boards, especially loop artists. It requires no extra hardware and is very fun to rediscover every pedal and what it does to the alien chatter. Single coil pickups work a lot better, because ‘humbuckers’ do exactly what they are named for- remove some of the noise.

I scrambled to record a demo video for our submission, but it ended up being a decent example of some of the sounds I found. See it here:

We are definitely only scratching the surface as to what the app could become… I think modulating the refresh with a couple of different waveform functions, like a synthesizer, or even drawing a waveform on the screen could end up with some really cool stuff. And with all the different guitar effects out there, not to mention software plugins. Creatively, having a physical pedalboard in front of me helped a lot.

The demo showcase was really fun... People liked it a lot and I shoegazed while Nate ran around telling everyone what exactly was going on. I kept the fuzz on high gain most of the time to enrich the sound, and played mostly with wah, reverb, and my digital pitch shift (EHX Pitch Fork).

I’m not totally in love with hackathons, but it was a great way to spur the development and get something out of my head and into the real world. Hopefully we can get more interesting modulation in the app eventually, and even better, see what other people’s guitars, phones, and effects can do!