WENATCHEE — When crafting a song, one might start by reaching for an instrument. Mike Bills starts with his soldering iron. He often conjures up sounds from scratch by melting together homemade audio effects.
For Bills — one of the Wenatchee Valley’s busiest musicians in normal times — being a DIY music creator is about designing something entirely new. The workstation in his Wenatchee home is a table clustered with wires, tools and various electronics, a sort of sound-creation room. Bills calls it his mad scientist laboratory.
There, he experiments and manipulates audio to his liking. When finished with a project, Bills will place his new electronics in a box, add buttons or knobs on top, then take it out into the world and play with it. Or, at least, Bills’ world of live audio experimentation.
In the local music scene, Bills is a member of The 509’s band and often jams with The Skiffs, both Wenatchee-based groups. Bills said he has judged genres too early before and now understands that to love a genre one must learn about it.
His music is a genre mix from jazz to country with a lot of Americana, and he tends to focus on guitar during performances.
When it comes to playing slide guitar, instead of being twangy and clean, he often throws on some homemade distortion. Part of Bills’ musical inspiration comes from hearing sounds he has not heard before.
For solo performances, Bills uses his homemade MIDI foot drum kit. The setup consists of a drum pedal that hits a pad, which then activates an electronic interface. Once pushed, the MIDI pad signals on, producing a sound of his choosing, be it a kick, snare or rimshot.
To keep everything upright when foot drumming live, Bills mounted his drum pad onto a wooden plate with hurricane straps, a metal part often used to help keep house parts from flying away in a storm.
Aside from the drum kit, Bills has a shelf full of DIY audio equipment.
He made his own fuzz pedal, used to turn incoming sound waves into square waves, which can create a heavily processed audio output, known for its fuzzy sound. The fuzz pedal is “just a super simple circuit,” he said.
Another DIY effect of Bill’s, nestled between several cords and knobs, is his compressor. The compressor can squish together audio, combining loud and quiet parts.
A little bit of compression might not be noticeable, but when a lot is added, a whisper can be as loud as a scream.
Next up, his boost pedal. The boost essentially acts like its name and increases incoming audio signals. When paired with a distortion or fuzz pedal, the boost pedal adds to the intensity of distorted audio. It is the sort of tool often used for guitar solos or anyone wanting to pile on sound effects.
The rest of the pedals are just different flavors of the same thing, he said. To make these audio twisting devices, Bills solders together resistors and microchips onto miniature circuit boards.
Once everything is put together, he fires it up for a test. To do these tests, one wire is clipped to the circuit board’s audio output and another wire is clipped to the input.
Then, Bills will hook his circuit up to an amp, play a riff and hear the new sound effect. If the effect needs a little tweaking, he can go back and swap out parts on the circuit board.
When first learning how to create one’s own sound effect, it is a steep learning curve, he said. But once over the hump, there is a lot of money to be saved and ideas to be tried out.
“It’s just a lot of fun,” he said. “You can keep exploring, finding new sounds.”
Moving forward, Bills plans to grow his musical knowledge and experiment with different sounds, always looking for “that unattainable tone,” he said.