AES139 Student Design Competition Winner Interview: James Pinkl
Hi Jimmy. Congrats again on your achievement! Thanks for taking the time for sitting down with us.
Thanks, and the pleasure is all mine.
Please tell us a little bit about yourself. Where are you from? Where and what do you study? What audio field are you in?
I am from Crystal Lake, Illinois, a not too distant suburb of Chicago. I studied electrical engineering and recently graduated from the University of Illinois at Chicago. I am currently designing analog circuits for audio electronics products full time.
Are you also a musician? What instruments do you play and in what musical context?
I play trap set and percussions primarily, but also diatonic harmonica a bit on the side. In the past, I've collaborated and/or played with jazz combos, drum lines, university wind ensembles, singer songwriters, trap producers and rappers, and blues bands.
My current musical focus is writing/playing/recording with a math rock group - I'm interested in the way odd time signatures can connect in unexpected ways. I also have a passion for free jazz and free improvisation. These experimental sounds and approaches are so heady in Chicago, I don't think there's any music scene in the world quite like it.
Tell us about your project and its development process. What was it inspired by?
The Voice Grip is a wireless vocal controller and effects circuit, meant to provide users with a more seamless way to expand the timbre of their voice. The design process included analog circuits, microcontroller coding, and pcb layout (more technical downloadable write up on this here).
The idea came about while I was brushing my teeth listening to the album Strawberry Jam by Animal Collective. Member Avey Tare has been an incredible inspiration for me, particularly his vocal style. I feel like I could see Avey using something like the Voice Grip.
Was it your first entry?
It wasn't - it took three years, three conventions, and three separate designs til I placed as a finalist.
Above: Jimmy prototyping the Voice Grip in the lab.
Tech talk: What are some recent favourite pieces of equipment and why?
I recently visited the Earthquaker Devices office and picked up the Rainbow Machine guitar pedal. Something new always seems to happen while messing around with it. It's particularly challenging for me to not sound like an absolute madman while using one, especially considering my sound source is a 10-hole harmonica.
I've also recently grown fond of Shure KSM141s. I've been getting great results using a pair as drum overheads when home recording my drum kit, which includes an old Ludwig 26"inch bass drum, a Camon Legend snare drum, and an Iron Cobra single bass pedal (the exact pedal previously owned by Zach Hill).
Lastly, I also just acquired a DL4 smart switch circuit from Schoolcraft Specialties. The mod has been making waves across guitar pedal forums as it solves a very common problem while remaining intuitive for the user. It's been working great for me, definitely worth checking out.
What are some of your favourite recordings or productions?
At the moment, some favorites that come to mind are Strawberry Jam (Animal Collective), Jenny Death (Death Grips), Swing Lo Magellan (Dirty Projectors), Listen to the Music (Shiggy Jr.), and Mojo Boogie (blues.the-butcher-590213).
My favorite motion picture soundtrack recordings are Man of Steel and Jurassic Park.
What/who made you join the AES?
The engineering college I attended had many outlets for students interested in robots or aeronautics, but I thought there was opportunity for audio resources to expand.
I spent the first two years of my undergraduate studies trying to get an audio related student group going. My approach was more about starting something new, I don't think it really occurred to me that a group as big as the AES was out there. I remember names like the ‘Cloud Sound Society’ and the ‘Progressive Soundwork Society’ coming up via brainstorming, haha.
Fastforward to the tail end of my second year, and I and a good friend/classmate of mine were finally able to do it right. He had previously heard and told me all about the AES, and pursuing a student chapter seemed like the most effective approach.
We really owe the rapid bring up of the group to the many supportive professors of the UIC Electrical Engineering department - throughout the years, they have opened many doors for us and have funded students to attend the design competitions.
So in short, I actually joined the AES while simultaneously creating an AES student section.
What do you like about the AES? How does it help you become a better and more successful electrical engineer?
The AES Conventions are a definite standout. The product development seminars, workshops, and product demonstrations provide opportunity for significant growth. I always get new ideas and inspiration at the conventions.
Additionally, the Chicago Chapter is a very active group and I am able to attend similar talks locally every month.
Above: Jimmy wins a Gold award for his design during the second Student Delegate Assembly meeting.
Tell us about your favourite experiences at the 139th AES Convention in New York!
Aside from the design competition, I spent a lot of time interacting with this year’s poster session presenters. This time around I learned a lot on spatial audio and audio perception. I feel I may finally be at a point where I can have a meaningful discussion with those on the cutting edge, which is pretty exciting!
What do you do when you’re not doing anything music or circuit related?
Outside of music, I spend my time checking out other art mediums such as standup comedy, comic strips, and independent video games. I think it's awesome to realize any common ground between these art forms and music. Louis C.K. interviews, The Calvin and Hobbes 10th Anniversary Book, and Indie Game: The Movie are all great insights for this.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
Continuing to design audio equipment of ‘legendary performance.’ I am in a good place gaining experience in both product development and analog circuitry. I don’t believe there’s a substitute for learning by doing and when you’re doing what you’re passionate about, how can you go wrong?
On that great final note we wish you all the best for the rest of your career, and a lifetime of doing what you're passionate about. Thanks Jimmy!