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The Droning Betsey
Note: Some of the following implements were not available for the photo session - seeing that this system has been decommissioned for some time, while the 8-track is enjoying it’s retirement atop a big heap of wires in a landfill somewhere . A: 8 track cassette player B: A ruler ( lost ) C: An Altoids tin with a radio shack momentary push switch mounted on it's face. (gone) D: Duct Tape and Wires E: A piece of aluminum wall track covered with surfboard grip tape with an an A/B switch mounted on it (formerly mounted on bass, photo below. F: A volume pedal (NA) G: A reverb device (gone)
In my travels with the Swiss Army Bass I’ve found it sporty to have the main two instruments (simultaneous bass guitar and keyboard ) accompanied by “drones.”. These are clusters of sustaining notes, perhaps a fifth or a triad in an octave, usually somewhere upwards of middle C, played independently on a third instrument. At one point, I used a keyboard called a Korg Poly Six for this task. While playing the Swiss Army Bass, I would reach out and pop off chords in simple intervals on the Polly Six and swell or slam them in by using a volume pedal. It sounded great but I hated having the keyboard sitting in front of me. I inevitably destroyed this poor keyboard while attempting to wire switches into it which would be mounted on my bass and would sound off many of the drones I would commonly use.
Somewhere in the course of destroying the Poly- Six, I got the idea for the “Droning Betsey.” This involved using an 8-track cassette player to produce similar, but cooler drones. I was too broke to afford a sampler at the time so I set up a twisted rig in order to do this kind of thing. It was quite cool . I created drones of real violins, cellos, choirs, saws, you name it. It was even possible for this thing to mimic the sound of a sledgehammer beating the shit out of an anvil.
Here’s how it all worked. Most of these old 8-track players have little buttons on ‘em that advance the machine continuously through four separate, stereo programs: 1-2-3-4-1-2-3-4-1-2, etc. These programs are roughly ten minutes in length and usually contain two or three songs. I set up an Altoids tin with a momentary push button switch mounted on it on the bass and taped it in to the advance button on the 8-track. This tin was mounted on the surface of the bass slightly above the strings and pickups. A standard wooden ruler (not in photo)was floated with roofing nails above the switch in order to extend it and create a nice wide target for my keyboard hand to hit in order to advance the programs on the 8-track. My hand would hit the ruler and the ruler would hit the button---you dig? The individual stereo outputs were extended up to an A/B switch mounted on a piece of aluminum wall construction track, also affixed to my bass. I recorded continuos drones, strings, vocals , etc. even the bass it self, being sawed onto a number of 8-track tapes. Each song had its own tape that was set up in such a way that hitting the advance switch would bring on the next chord or drone in the song. For example, the left channel of all 4 programs on the tape would handle 4 possible chord changes for the verse of a song with a different chord on each program, set up in continual succession. The A/B switch would switch the tape machine’s output to the right channel where the chorus of a song might be found. The output was fed into a volume pedal for control over when and where these drones would sound. From there the signal was fed into a reverb unit in order to soften the abruptness of the program switching and enrich the overall sound. The net result sounded warm and loving and even worked most of the time. One of the cool and not so cool aspects of this rig was that the pitch of the drones would vary as much as half step depending on temperature, humidity or the 8-tracks particular mood that day - an effect not commonly encountered with , digital sampler, woosary.
I really wish I had a picture of the rig that all this was built into, it was hysterical. I had a Yamaha Dx-7 with its keyboard ripped out with atop a crudely built wooden box where I had the 8-track and the rest of my “gear”. The open space where the keyboard once was on the DX-7 was the perfect width to hold the numerous amounts of 8-track tapes it took to do this stuff like this. At one point, and this is no joke, there was a mouse, living in the DX-7.