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Yesterday we received an amazing email from Felipe Bravo who lives in California and has been a big fan of Andrew Bird and Specimen for more than a decade.

Specimen Horn Speaker tattoo

He spoke of how much the Sonic Arboretum inspired him and of a tattoo design he had been contemplating for a couple years.

On March 30th, Felipe sat down at Traditional Tattoo in San Luis Obispo, California, and with the help of tattoo artist Jake Schroeder, made it real. This is his first tattoo!

We at Specimen are flattered beyond words.

Fiona Apple returned to the stage at SXSW last week. Her first tour in 5 years, she is backed by a quartet of amazing musicians including Blake Mills who is also opening up for Fiona on this tour. Blake plays Specimen’s Electric Tiple, a 10-string instrument about the size of a baritone uke.

The Tiple was made out of a sense of curiosity and enchantment with the concept of double-triple-triple-double courses and until Blake called its fate remained uncertain as it is a rather bizarre instrument. I’d like to suggest that Blake’s mastery of the negative space in his music has contributed to his ability to tame this crazy thing. A lot of players just ‘rip the licks’, but Blake has a special talent to integrate rather amazing runs and chord bends into the music. It’s like the sounds are underneath and not on top of the song. He certainly put it to good use at the show we saw in Chicago last Sunday. So far the tour is receiving rave reviews: Rolling Stone, Chicago Tribune

Video of Fiona Apple’s SXSW show on the NPR stage at Stubb’s BBQ

Last week Andrew Bird kicked off his US tour at SXSW playing a sold out show on the NPR stage. For this tour, Specimen created several spinning Aerosel horns that Andrew has incorporated into his stage show. The horns are completely handmade in our shop using the ‘stick and tissue’ method, which is similar to building vintage airplanes. Check out our Blog Post and see photos taken during the building of these spinning beauties.

Photos courtesy of How’s My Living

Below are You Tube videos shot at the SXSW show in Austin, TX and in Atlanta, Georgia.

The Aerosel project began back in the summer of 2010 after our Sonic Arboretum show at the Guggenheim in NYC. Part of that trip included a visit to Coney Island. Inspired by the beauty of structures like the vintage Cyclone roller coaster and remnants of the old parachute drop and other death-defying structures which haven’t been used for years, Ian set about creating an aerodynamic version of his horn speakers that would not only recall these inspirations, but take horn shapes to a radical new level.

Incorporating his beloved octagon, he set about making the new horns using dowel rods, fiberboard, and plywood – a method similar to building ‘stick and tissue’ airplanes from early aviation. He covered part of the first Aerosel horn in aircraft covering, tightly shrinking it across the horn’s vertical planes.

The resulting sculpture was to be the form for a mold, but it became clear that is was far too beautiful to sacrifice (as forms can be destroyed in the mold-making process). Hanging in the shop, the undulating horn captivated many people, including our dear friend Andrew Bird. Ian discussed various uses for the Aerosel horns and sent a movie of it to Andrew’s Lighting Designer, Ryan Murphy, who immediately saw the potential for shadow play on stage. In January, Ian and the Specimen crew began generating six new shapes ranging in size from 4 – 7 feet. The first two are going to Europe tomorrow as Andrew begins touring in support of his new album, Break it Yourself. The other four will join the US leg of the tour next week. It should be spectacular!

This guitar came in the shop for some repair work. It’s a nice Harmony Archtop, probably from the 1950s, but what makes it truly special are the numerous illustrations by some of the comic world’s most beloved artists. On the top side is a dinosaur by William Stout, there is also a “franken-monster” by Albert Feldstein (editor of Mad magazine), a curious creature by John Rush, a haunting female face by Ted Naife, and a Mariachi dude by Sergio Aragones.

The owner of this guitar kindly provided us with a complete listing on all the artists featured on his guitar. They are: Bob Burden, Alex Ross, Adam Hughes, Basil Gogos, Thomas Blackshear, Dave McKean, Mike Dringenberg, Mike Mignola, Dan Brereton, Arthur Suydam, Mark Carter, Ted Naifeh, Al Feldstein, Mark Brooks, John Rush, Dan Henderson, Barron Storrey, Steve Lieber, Tony de Zuniga, Paul Guinan, Sergio Aragones, Terry Dodson, Doug Klauba, Mark Schultz, Eric Joyner, Gary Amano, Ruben Martinez

Machining the neck pocket of one of my aluminum guitars is a true joy of mine (LOL). I use advanced digital technology, that is, I use my fingers to turn the cranks on the milling machine to achieve the proper dimensions. My mill is a 1940s Linley Pattern Maker’s Mill. It’s been mine for twenty years, and it’s still going strong.

Each neck pocket on a Specimen Aluminum is machined to precisely fit the neck heel of the actual neck going on the instrument. This arduous procedure may be somewhat superstitious (as opposed to using generalized templates) but it ensures a perfect fit and superior assembly on each and every guitar.

This guitar model is my Specimen Aluminum Esquire. With the neck block machining safely behind me, I can now embark on fitting the bridge and then “honey-combing” the frame to reduce weight and create a secret, internal beauty.

You can see images of the finished instrument here.

Back before the Sonic Arboretum opened, Time Out Chicago Kids ran a nice feature in their December/January issue. It gave Ian a chance to talk about how his childhood, specifically working alongside his Grandfather, influences his work.

Photos taken at Specimen Products during the building of the Sonic Arboretum Exhibit for MCA Chicago We were delighted that Time Out Chicago Kids reached out to us. The feature turned out very nice and Erica Gannett, who came out to photograph the shop for Time Out, took a series of lovely photos of the shop. Check it out!

Believe it or not these two Epiphone guitars are actually the same model: The Mighty Epiphone Olympic. The 1940s instrument on the left came in for a full restoration that required a neck set with a substantial revision to the neck geometry in order to get the bridge elevated enough to elicit some of the monster tone lurking within this box. This is prickly business with the traditional dovetail neck joint (still my favorite regardless).

Once the neck was set, it was completely re-fretted. The trapeze attachment plate had also exploded and needed to be re-fabricated. To do this, I unfolded the broken parts until they were flat and then made a new template.


I then cut the parts out of a sheet of brass and folded it and rolled it back up using the subtle persuasion of an anvil, a few small blocks of hardwood, and a ball peen hammer. Next I fabricated and fit a new bridge. It all went together well and once the instrument was setup it produced a great volume and gorgeous sonority.

We may never how the three on a side headstock morphed to a bat wing headstock on the more modern instrument on the right. This instrument had an unfortunate tuning machine replacement and had some chip-out on the headstock face which I drop-filled and buffed out so that vintage-style tuners could be re-fit.

After many months of hard work and anticipation, Specimen and Andrew Bird’s team of engineers installed the Sonic Arboretum at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art on Monday, December 5, 2011.

Andrew Bird and Ian Schneller's Sonic Arboretum Exhibit at MCA Chicago December 2011Andrew Bird and Ian Schneller's Sonic Arboretum Exhibit at MCA Chicago December 2011During the first week of the exhibit, Andrew used the third floor balcony off the museum’s main atrium as a perch from where he could create new compositions specifically for the exhibit and the museum. It was thrilling to witness his creative process and see museum visitors reacting to the exhibit and the music. After the compositions were recorded, Neil Strauch (engineer extraordinaire) and Andrew manipulated the various loops of violin, guitar, and whistling sending them to specific horn speakers, shifting the sounds around the museum’s atrium creating a spatial phenomenon that is both beautiful and provocative.

The exhibit is open to the public until the end of the month. Do check it out….it is something to behold! Below is a slideshow of photos from the first week of this exhibit.

We are making the final push before installing the Sonic Arboretum at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago next Monday. This week we’ll be completing the final stages of French polishing the horns, testing the system and installing the remote control unit for the XL Janus spinning horn speaker. It’s getting pretty exciting around here!

Chicago Magazine features Andrew Bird & Ian Schneller's Sonic ArboretumChicago Magazine features the Sonic Arboretum in their December 2011 issue.

What a day! The photo shoot for this feature began at 8:00 am when Saverio Truglia and his crew loaded in an intriguing assortment of equipment, props, and even a smoke machine!

Shot back in September on location in the building where Specimen Products is located, Saverio pulled out all the stops creating a moody garden scene using our horn speakers, astro-turf, fake rocks, and mysterious lighting techniques. We wrapped up around 3:00 pm – just about the time when Ian’s feet were going numb.

This was perhaps the first time Ian has ever worn makeup. Oh, wait! There was that one time he painted himself green for a Shrimp Boat show.

You can see the Chicago Magazine article here.

Ian Schneller on stage with Shrimp Boat at the Lounge Ax, Chicago

With little less than one month before we setup the exhibit at the MCA Chicago, work on the Sonic Arboretum is in high gear. We have a great group of people working away at assembling, seaming, dyeing, french polishing, sanding, carving, wiring and just about every other “-ing” you can think of.

With the help of photographer Shane Welch, we are creating a photo journal. Here is a little slideshow for you.