Analog Synthesizer Tips and Tricks. Electrical Engineering FUNdamentals

SOLARWIND… Our Musical Group.
I was fascinated with playing electronic music and played with my friends (Ken, Mark and Leon) in Ken’s basement for 5 years on the weekends. I also had a setup in my living room and would invite guests. This was at the time of analog synths and the beginning of midi. My favorite instrument was the Korg Polysix… It had the ability to make those really astonishing outer space sounds… Modulated resonant filter sweeping… like Steve Miller, Edgar Winter or Doctor Who… The pitch of the note could be defined by the control voltage input on the rear panel… well, I had a Radio Shack “100 in One experimenters kit” and a bag of capacitors, resistors and light emitting diodes that I hooked up to generate an oscillating circuit… Absolutely no one else on the planet was making the noises that I made… similar, true, but my noises were unique… Since it was created using wires and SPRING CLIPS to connect the components, the resistance of each connection varied according to stress on the wires… for example: if I blew at the circuit, the music would change due to the pressure of the wind…

Leon had a black box that allowed me to sing or talk into the synthesizer and the volume of my voice determined the sound of the synth… You can hear this particular technique on THE DOORS- STRANGE DAYS… Listen carefully and when Jim Morrison sings the words “Strange Days have found us…etc” there are squiggly noises that follow along with the vocals… (amplitude to control voltage converter, also pitch to control voltage)
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I also had a display of 18 strands of christmas tree lights that would blink on and off… they were hung in the corner of the room with a mylar mirror on each wall… That provided enough light to be able to see the controls and keys on the keyboards… Each strand of lights would be either on or off and they all had different timing cycles… this made the whole display appear to experience waves of rainbow colors… The keyboards were all interconnected to allow waves of sound to evolve over time as the modulated filters ebbed with tidal forces…
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Fun, but all those analog synths are hard to find anymore… they were replaced with digital ones that were cheaper to produce and more reliable… somehow there was a move towards realistic instrument sounds instead of outer space whoosh whoosh… too bad…
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I remember Emerson, Lake and Palmer in concert at the Winterland in San Francisco… Keith jumped off the stage and wandered around the dance floor “zapping” people with a ribbon controller that was making “ray-gun” sounds… A good example of the ribbon controller was on “Good Vibrations” by the Beach Boys… the part that goes oooWWWWEEEwooowooo… ooooWWWWEEEwooowooo…
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Another beautiful synth was bought used at a yard sale for 75 dollars. It was a minikorg and had been thru severe abuse on the road. This marvel is most famous as the lead voice on Kitaro records… the breathy flute sound that he uses to play melody parts… The theme to Silk Road, etc… This was a monophonic synth that had ring modulator effects and white noise… this also had a switch for setting the pitch to an extremely low tone… as if you were playing notes on a piano that were way off the end of the left hand… this machine allowed me to create what I called the “Dawn of Time” sound… A growling bass note that needed about 10 seconds to play… A ring modulator lets each key have its own vibrato rate… for example” “C” might have a wow wow wow sound that shanged every half a second while “C#” would have a wow wow wow that changed 42 times a second… “D would be 6 times a second etc… this tonal quality creates many of the more avant garde (or teeth gratingly irritating) sounds of extremely early synth recordings…
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I also became fascinated by the possibilities of echo and computer controlled music. Lucky for me, instruments started being built with a MIDI interface… this caused older instruments to go on sale at extremely cheap prices…
The Roland microcomposer was 8 1/2 by 11 inches and had a microcomputer in it. I stored sequences of pitches and durations of notes using the tiny keyboard… really, really tiny… It was designed to drive two SH101 Roland synths and could play two notes simultaneously… what a breakthrough… from ONE NOTE at a time to two… By typing in a series of bass notes each with a duration of 1/8 of a bar… and then running it thru an echo box that had a time set to 3/16th of a bar… and setting the voltage controlled filter so that some notes were silent, some notes were muted and some notes were loud… I was able to trick the system into composing by itself a never repeating bassline that was fun to improvise over… the computer selected which notes to play and when… cosmic…
This worked well for music that is called MODAL… In that style, there are no chord changes at all… the performers select a handfull of notes as the scale and just go to it… the most famous modal piece is “The Old Washer Woman” and The theme performed by Edith Bunker on the television show “All in the Family”… The music is played entirely on the BLACK NOTES of the piano… I think they called it “Those Were The Days”… “Didn’t need no welfare state, everybody pulled his weight, gee those old La Salles ran great… THOSE were the DAAAAAYYYYSSSS…. It is an extremely simple song. So simple that I was able to teach a computer to play in that style… Of course, my compositions were not at all like that whiny song… more robotoc and like German Technopop…
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Music nonstop, technopop… Bleep, blonk… tchatchink…
I was fortunate to have read an article in the Washington Post about the upcoming Kraftwerk concert so I went out and bought the recommended album Autobahn and liked it… The basic style of music sounded interesting and so, I went to the beautiful Warner Theatre to see them. This was an elegant performance space that started out as an ART DECO theatre and then became a dance hall for rock music… oh how lucky we were… This was my first exposure to the technopop music and many of the people in the audience were Germans… I had no idea that such music was even possible. The tour was to promote their albums Computerworld and Man Machine… They had two fellows that beat with “knitting needles” on touch sensitive drum machines while the other two played keyboard synthesizers… The drummers were wild because every time a knitting needle contacted the machine, a loud percussive sound happened… not drum sounds but more like boink or ping or even pffffbtt… When they performed their song “pocket calculator” they walked to the front of the stage and had members of the audience play the notes… The lyrics state ” by pushing down a special key it plays a little melody” blink bonk…. katrronk…. Quite an effective piece of showmanship and audience participation… Then at the end of the show , all the people left the stage and let the computers play the song… for about ten minutes… wild dancing to actual robot performers… I was amazed… Their website has a toy on it that lets you play a drum machine… boing, boom, tchack, peng, zonk… http://www.kraftwerk.com/
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Much of the time when I played with my friends in the basement in Manassas, Virginia we had a home made laser lightshow going… My friend built this using an extremely slowly rotating mirror that had a little “house” built on it out of transparent “walls” and clear glue… The “house” was about 3/4 of an inch tall and caused interference patterns to be displayed on the ceiling… these took the appearance of galaxies or clouds that slowly changed. The speed was about One RPM. He had guests come over and bring their instruments… A trumpet player from the Redskins Football Team band was a memorable evening. In general, we played music that you would hear as a soundtrack for a motion picture… Incidental music or abstract jazz or “outer space whoosh whoosh”…..
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We made a demo recording and had an agent in New York try to sell it to people making corporate videos… No sale, but it was fun trying… When we recorded the demo, I loaned a huge pile of my equipment to Leon and he set up a special studio in the basement of his grandpas home. His grandpa was a Retired General in the Army and had a mansion in McLean and another in Arizona. I never met the grandpa because were were not allowed to visit when he was in town nor were we allowed in many parts of the mansion due to breakable oriental antiques. These people live in a truly different world than us peasants.
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I really got into samplers when I got a midi controlled 4 second monophonic machine. It could be controlled by the drum machine. My favorite sound was a pan pipe. I set up the sound so that the sampler could play it back very slowly giving a low pitch. It sounded as if a giant was blowing on a pan pipe 20 feet tall… I made a tape and gave it to my friend “Major” Tom (a Bowie fan). He was very happy with it because when it was played on the car stereo, it put his children to sleep… Unfortunetly, also on that tape were some doppler effect noises and he panicked because he thought it was a police car siren. A moment of fear but it was quickly resolved by erasing that song from the tape…

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