Archive for January, 2013


The Black Widow MkII and more on sample manipulation

I recently came to use the Black Widow sample manipulator again and decided to make some improvements to it.


Black widow controls

Initially, I improved some of the existing features: what I had at first perceived as ‘unreliability’ in its responses to button commands was really only a difficulty in making the required number of presses to ‘fix’ volume, filter or pan settings on a sample.  This involves making one, two or three quick presses on the hatswitch button – like making a single, double or triple mouse-click reliably – not perhaps one of my best ideas, and a little difficult to execute, especially without any feedback as to whether the fix had been made or not.  So I added indicators to show if the fixes were on or off.

I then moved the sample arrays onto the same page, so there was no need – as there had been in the original – to move from page to page on screen to see what was happening with the samples being played.  This screen also now has the various indicators for volume, filter, playing position within the sample, etc., visible next to the representation of the waveform in the array:


Above each array are also indicators ‘REVERB ON/REVERB OFF’ and ‘ECHO ON/ECHO OFF’.  I thought simple versions of these two effects would be useful, and added them to each of the output stages.  Having run out of buttons on the Black Widow, these effects are manually turned on and off by using the ‘W’ and ‘E’ keys on the computer keyboard.  (Although ‘E’ makes sense for echo, ‘W’ doesn’t for reverb, but I chose these two letters so as not to conflict with another program I commonly use, where ‘R’ and ‘V’ have particular functions; and ‘W’ happens to be next to ‘E’).

Also, on the right-hand side, indicators for ‘Auto Speed’ and ‘Number of sections done’ refer to the next change I made: a function to allow the Black Widow program to run automatically.  It’s designed to do this in a similar way to the way it’s operated manually: one sample at a time is operated on, and there are built-in delays between stages to allow a particular selected combination of settings to play for a while before being changed.

The particular settings are chosen by random numbers generated by the program.  In normal operation this will allow them to range between minimum and maximum values in each case.  In the event that this wide range is not required (for example, turning the  filter to minimum usually has the effect of turning the sound off, as does turning the playback speed to zero), there is now a page on which minimum and maximum values can be set for each parameter of each sample:


It’s possible here to fix any parameter, so it cannot be changed during ‘auto’ mode; and to fix any sample to play back at normal speed, full volume, average filter setting and centre panned.

Finally, I added a third section in which samples can be recorded into the arrays, rather than loaded from existing sound files.  This could be useful for variety in a ‘live performance’ in which short samples (90 seconds is PureData’s default maximum) could be recorded and almost immediately loaded and manipulated, manually or automatically.

The screen that opens automatically when the app is run has had to be expanded, and now looks like this:


It looks a bit complicated, but I haven’t mastered the method of producing a neat GUI; however, it works fine, and is easy to use if the numbered steps are followed.

The PureData file on which the app is based is here.

Here’s an example of the Black Widow in operation:

The 4 short samples used here are a recording of  a park, birdsong, running water and a live performance of the Cracklephone.


It’s perhaps worth mentioning here, as I haven’t done so anywhere else, a very handy little device I used, not wanting to have a full-sized keyboard in the way when I was trying to use the Black Widow controller.  This is the so-called iPazzport, a miniature keyboard and trackpad, which connects to the computer by USB.  It looks like this:


If you imagine that the trackpad is slightly smaller than the trackpad on a laptop, this gives you an idea of just how tiny the keys are – but I was still able to press the correct key when required.  In case of difficulty it comes with a stylus and a small attachment which fits on the end of the finger, with a point underneath it.

Mine was about £10 off eBay, but I don’t know how readily available they are now: the one you see these days is a wireless version which costs a bit more, between £15 and £20.  There are now some similar items – also wireless – styled rather more like TV remote controls, which look as if they might have larger keys.


Also worth mentioning here, if you’re interested in this kind of thing, is the work of Karlheinz Essl.  You can read about him here: and on his website at

Of particular relevance in relation to the Black Widow project is one of the various programs Essl has created for sample manipulation, fLOW, which is described like this: ‘fLOW . . . generates an ever-changing and never repeating soundscape in real time that fills the space with flooding sounds that resemble – metaphorically – the timbres of water, fire, earth, and air. This ambient sound scape generator adjusts itself through various parameters and controllers that are represented in real time on your screen.’  It comes with four samples, which are are loaded and manipulated automatically via a comb filter, ring modulation, frequency shift and a flanger, but you can also load your own samples into it for a more personalised experience.


You can read about fLOW and download it from  I don’t remember how much it costs, but it isn’t very much, and well worth the money.

This is an extract from a track created with fLOW. The source file was an edited recording I made of a boat passing through a lock in Earith, Cambridgeshire:

It’s well worth reading more about Essl, too.  His main preoccupation is one that I’ve become interested in in recent years: ‘music that is created at the moment of its sounding (“realtime composition”)’. Improvisation, looping and manipulation of sound and music samples are all part of the same field, and chance can play a significant role.  In a later post I’ll be mentioning another his programs, REplay PLAYer (found at, a multi-featured program for manipulating a single sound sample.

[Edit: that post is here]


Finally, a very nice freeware program with similar features which I’ve used is Sineqube’s Sapling, which is described here:  Sapling provides an easy means to load 4 samples and vary – manually or automatically – the speed and volume of playback, and the length of a loop created within each sample.  It works well with short samples and allows a very useful combination of automatic and manual adjustments to be made in real time as the samples are played, and a facility for recording the output to disk.

sapling screenshot 2

This is an extract from a track created using Sapling.  The source file was an edited version of some recordings I made on my iPhone of a windmill in Burwell, Cambridgeshire:


With all of these programs, including the Black Widow in Auto Mode, I enjoy setting up the conditions and listening to the samples play, although for a more permanent record of what was created, I normally edit the recorded results.


[Edit: more modifications have been made to the Black Widow (although not for sample manipulation). See this post].


January 2013
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