Thursday, August 21, 2008


Whoo hoo, I finally got one!

(Although this photo is from the BugBrand website.)

Uh, sorry about that, but I’ve tried to get a Weevil so many times now that I didn’t really think it was actually possible. The stars all aligned properly yesterday, apparently, as I happened to check my email while at work, which I’m not really supposed to be doing, of course, just after the Bug Brand email came in. Also, this time there were an unusually large number of Weevils available, 20 of them, rather then the usual 5 or 6. I jumped on it, and have just released a 24-hours-held breath as I checked my email, again from work, and found my congratulations note from Tom.

In my excitement, though, I’ve more or less started at the end, so let me start from the beginning as I’ve probably lost a few people along the way.

Tom Bugs of BugBrand makes all sorts of boxes which make all sorts of noises (and in fact some of them don’t even come in boxes). Here’s how he describes it on his website:

BugBrand offers a constantly expanding and mutating range of electronic sound & effect devices, all built by hand in Bristol, singly or in small batches. All designs mix experimental audio circuitry with ideas taken from the techniques of circuit bending, and bring together many different controls and playing methods to give intuitive and inspiring instruments.

Most of the boxes have small touch pads, nine of them in the case of the Weevil08, and a selection of knobs and switches. They’re not exactly a synthesizer because that implies full control, but they’re more than a Cracklebox because those have pretty much no controls at all.

Here’s BugBrand’s description of a Weevil:

Weevils are built around lofi squarewave oscillators which are quasi-ringmodulated together. Add on power starvation, body contacts and other features and you get versatile noise’n’drones, full of chaotic and analogue life.

There have been many incarnations of the Weevil, ranging from tiny postcard versions up to the latest AudioWeevil. There’s a fascinating history of the Weevil with lots of photos on the BugBrand Sound Devices page. The one that I’d really like to have is the Drone Machine, but unfortunately only five were ever made. There’s also a BugBrand modular, but they’re not available for purchase as there’s only one. Also, if you’re in Europe there’s an occasional BugBrand performance and/or installation.

I hope to have my Weevil08 in a week or so. Once it arrives I’ll post photos and maybe a video.

Update: Some of the Bugbrand links have changed since I wrote this. The current BugBrand Sound Devices page is more of a what's-currently-available page rather than a history. Also, unfortunately the Drone Machine page isn't there anymore. The BugBrand modular is actually being produced now, though. There are 12 being made as of mid 2009 (all of which are spoken for).

Monday, August 18, 2008

Synthesizers of the (Not-Too-Distant) Future

It seems to me that this is an incredible time in the history of synthesizers. When I first started playing, the choice was basically between a Moog and an Arp. Nowadays, there are piles of interesting instruments to be had, many for (more or less) reasonable prices. That’s what’s available right now. This post, however, is about a few new synthesizers which are coming over the horizon, some nearer then others.

The first that comes to mind, maybe because it’s the closest to being released, is the Mattson Mini Modular (hereafter referred to as the MMM as it’s way easier to type). George Mattson, notable as the maker of the Syntar back around 30 years ago, has started up again to make what is possibly the worlds smallest “true” modular. I say “true” in quotes because it’s actually made up of individual modules which can be purchased and arranged in a cabinet in any order you like. There are other semi-modulars out there which are small, but many of them while possibly fully patchable have controls permanently mounted in a metal panel, meaning you can’t move them around.

And when I say small, I mean small.

No, that’s not one giant modular synthesizer. What you’re looking at is a wall of eight complete MMM synths. If I remember correctly, mine is the one in the middle row on the left.

I haven’t held one in person yet, but no matter how amazingly small it looks in the photographs, the size of two New York City phone books, I have a feeling it will feel shockingly small in real life. If you ignore the size, however, the MMM is a full featured and powerful modular synthesizer, regardless of the size of it. I’m hoping it will be ready this fall.

Another synth coming in the near future is the Solaris, by John Bowen Synth Design. John Bowen started at Moog in 1973 and a few years later was at Sequential Circuits and has done many things after that as well. While working with Creamware he designed the Solaris soft synth plug-in, which in a departure from the usual is now being converted to a hardware version. The Solaris, now in the prototype stage, looks to be a best-of-both-worlds merging of hardware and software.

There are a number of synths which have knobs linked to displays so they can use the same set of knobs to control many different functions. The Solaris is no different, except that it doesn’t have just one display/knob set, it has six of them! Add to that four oscillators, four filters, six envelope generators, five LFOs and a pile of effects and it starts to sound truly dangerous.

Last for today is the Waldorf Stromberg, mostly because to me this one seems the farthest away. Waldorf has made some incredible instruments in the past such as the XT and Q, and this latest incarnation of the company has designed the Blofeld, a tiny desktop synthesizer that sounds huge. I hope they sell tons of them so they can thrive and keep going until the Stromberg makes it out of the mock-up phase and into production. The Stromberg promises to encompass all of Waldorf’s previous synth engines in one sleek and silver package. While not holding my breath yet, I am definitely looking forward to it.

In writing this I’ve tried to not sound like a commercial for any of these companies. I’m not sure I’ve succeeded in doing that, but I hope I’ve conveyed my enthusiasm for these very different and very interesting new instruments. In the interests of full disclosure, I have already ordered both the MMM and the Solaris and am eagerly (and somewhat impatiently!) awaiting the actual delivery. They may not be scheduled to arrive immediately, but I’m pretty sure they’ll most definitely be worth the wait. The Stromberg may be further off, but I feel that one also will be an amazing instrument.

Photo credits:
All photos are from the manufacturers’ websites
Mattson Mini Modular
John Bowen Solaris
Waldorf Stromberg

Monday, August 11, 2008

Elektron Monomachine

The Elektron Monomachine. I’m not sure what made me go out and get one, and even after several months I’m not completely sure how I feel about it and what it stands for. However, that being said, I have not been able to stop messing with it since I got it.

My original thought was something along the lines of, “Oooh, I’ll get this and now I’ll have my TB-303.” It’s nothing like that at all. In fact, now, looking back on it, I bought it on a rather large leap of faith. It didn’t turn out the way I expected, but I could not have asked for a better, uh, whatever the thing is.

Here’s what I’ve found so far:

It’s not a 303. You could fairly call it a beat box, but it’s not at all “limited” to that. What you get is basically five separate synthesizer engines (although they’ve just recently added two more via a downloadable update) and a six track sequencer, each track having up to 64 steps. It’s programmed like a drum machine: hold down one of the step buttons and enter your note (although you can record from a keyboard as well). I first thought that was a limiting approach. I’m a keyboard player, after all. However, it turns out that that’s simply not a problem. The interface is so beautifully designed that it just stays out of your way and lets you work quickly and easily. After an initial period of “what the heck am I doing?” I’ve grown quite comfortable with it.

In fact, getting around the “I’m a keyboard player, darn it” mindset has been one of the biggest problems for me with the Monomachine. I’ve written several pieces now but I’m left sitting there “performing” them rather than playing them. I feel more like a DJ than a musician at times because of that. It almost doesn’t feel legitimate somehow. (I don’t think I’d make a good composer because I can’t imagine not playing my own pieces.) One of the ones I’ve done is a drone-y, ambient, Frippertronics-ish piece. I’m not sure how I’ll go about playing it live, though, except to stand still as a statue for eight and a half minutes except for 10 or so button pushes (start button for the first track, push on the other five tracks in turn, push off the tracks in not-quite-reverse order). I’m almost tempted to do it as a performance art piece.

My “problem” with the Monomachine is more existential then musical. As a musical device the thing is amazing. However, it’s making me question what it means to be a musician. I went to college and majored in Radio (and Psychology, but I suppose that would be for a different post), thinking I’d be a DJ in the old-fashioned sense of the word (i.e., playing LPs on the radio). I more or less quickly lost interest in that as a career because I wanted the supposed purity of being a musician and playing my own music rather than someone else’s. In the past year or so, now, I’ve seen Moldover a few times and thought the performance was incredible but questioned whether he was or was not a “real” musician. Well, after playing my Monomachine for several months if I ever sit down and chat with Moldover for any length of time I’m going to have to apologize to him for ever doubting. My 10 minimalist button pushes are no less “true” than if I was furiously playing it all with two hands on a dozen keyboards. Basically, I’ve somehow realized, as my buddy and musical partner E. Doctor Smith would say, it’s all good.

I was originally intending this post to be about the instrument and not about the philosophy, but hey, sometimes you have to just go with it. I plan on posting more about the Monomachine in the near future, more about the hardware and its musical capabilities, less about the thought processes.

Anyway, here are three tracks I’ve done recently, entirely with the Monomachine and nothing else, for what I’m intending to be my next album. The first, called My Memories of You, My Dreams, was intended to have a bit of that “Berlin School” feel to it. It came out a bit too “happy-sounding” for my taste, so I made another version of it with the aim of having it be much darker. I ended up combining them into a single longer piece.

The next piece, Like Sparks in Smoke, started out life as a bass line I heard in my head and grew from there.

The last one, Saw No Signs of Madness, came seemingly out of nowhere. I had just loaded up the two new wavetable-ish synth engines and was experimenting with them. I made a long, slow sound so I could hear how one wave crossfaded into another and somehow it turned into this song.

I have plenty more patterns recorded, and several other songs made out of them. I could see doing an entire album out of just Monosynth tunes, although I’m not sure I’d really want to do that. In addition, though, I liked the Monosynth so much that I went out and got its twin, the Machinedrum. Unfortunately, the new Monosynth engines were released at almost the same time I got the Machinedrum, so I haven’t even had the chance to fire it up yet as I just had to dive into that new sonic potential. I can’t imagine how the two will of them together will affect me, given how only using the one so far has blown me away.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Two Kits Arrive

Earlier this week two kits arrived in the mail. One requires a soldering iron, the other only some glue.The first, the soldering one, is a Thingamakit from Bleep Labs. I already have a couple of Thingamagoops, which are great fun, but the idea of making my own has a lot of appeal. I got the version of the kit that came with a case, but I’m considering building it into some other device/enclosure/box. I’ll have to look around the apartment to see what I’ve got available.

Here are some “unboxing” pictures:

I anticipate that the second kit will make far less noise than the first but will also be somewhat easier to assemble.

This came with a CD I got recently, Gas 0095. It’s some really good music, well worth checking out. Plus, as a complete bonus it came with this build-it-yourself Minimoog. Can’t argue with that. Highly recommended, although I believe they’ve sold out all of the Moog kits (but the CD’s certainly worth it even without the Moog). Note that the thing’s tiny, palm-sized. A US quarter would completely cover the manual.

Another source of papercraft synth kits is SDIYcut. They’ve no more left at the moment either, but the site says there may be more at some point. Not necessarily more of what’s already there, but possibly other models. There’s also some other papercraft synths over on Matrixsynth from about a year ago, a Korg MS-20 and an Arturia Moog Modular V.