Most of us never got to know Leon Theremin (Lev Termen) or hear him play live. But we can take in his great grandson continuing the tradition of playing his invention – and Peter Theremin’s music is just as hauntingly human.
The Theremin has a special role in music history and the birth of electronic sound. Its sounds were among the first to suggest that electronic, not only acoustic, instruments could be expressive, that its electrical utterances could be like a human voice. It’s history is bound up with the history of US-Soviet relations, and the shaky relationship of electronics to espionage (and, in turn, the Communist sphere’s oscillating position on how acceptable electronic music would be). And is if that weren’t enough, the instrument also inspired Bob Moog to create synths, forever altering the course of the synth’s evolution.
But even with so many other choices now, there’s something uniquely pure and arresting about the Theremin’s sound and dead-simple design. And so among various international artists and in particular Russians carrying on that tradition, Peter Theremin (Петр Термен) is the one who literally carries on the inventor’s name. His music lives up to that, and then there’s the fact that he unmistakably carries some of the same DNA.
I got to here Peter play most recently last week at Moscow’s Synthposium, within walking distance of a lot of Theremin history in the Russian capital (not to mention the US Embassy where Maestro Lev once bugged the US Ambassador’s office, Trojan Horse style. (We really need to build one of these in a workshop. Anyone tried that?)
That performance is online:
“The Swan” as played by Clara Rockmore is one of my favorite Theremin performances ever, and Peter comes pretty darn close in his rendition for BBC Music:
Following his VKontakte page is the best way to dig through his music, if you don’t mind a little Russian text here and there – a login isn’t even needed. (VK is a social network mostly popular in Russia, where it’s based.)
The story of electronic music making is ultimately a human one, even as those humans work with machines. So as the Bob Moog Foundation plans a Moog museum and expanded education, we share seven images from the archives that follow a thread through that history.
The Bob Moog Foundation is a non-profit American organization dedicated to continue the legacy of its namesake. And now they’re expanding their educational project for kids, the Dr. Bob’s SoundSchool, which uses sound technology to teach engineering and science as well as culture. Plus they’re raising funds to create a physical Moogseum. And to do that, they’ve got some classic instruments to give away as fundraising items in a raffle (details below).
There are tons of amazing images and artifacts now in the foundation archives. But let’s examine a few that capture a set of moments across that history. Thanks to Bob’s daughter and Moog Foundation Executive Director, Michelle Moog-Koussa, for sending these to CDM. (Captions also courtesy Michelle.)
Roger Powell and Bob Moog with custom modular controller designed by Bob for Roger, at Radio City Music Hall.
Roger donated this controller to the Bob Moog Foundation, and it is now part of their archives and will be present at the Moogseum.
Bob Moog fixing Patrick Moraz’s Polymoog in Switzerland.
Bob Moog and Less Paul with the LAB Series Amp.
Bob Moog, Suzanne Ciani, Roger Powell, UIW.
Bob Moog, Herbie Hancock, Will Alexander, NAMM.
Bob Moog lecturing at University of Michigan about Alwin Nikolias’ first commercially available Moog synthesizer.
Chick Corea and Bob Moog, Asheville Civic Center.
About that raffle:
A Memorymoog, Moog Source, and Moog Rogue will be offered as first, second, and third prizes, respectively. The Moog Trifecta Raffle marks the first time in the Foundation’s history that it is offering more than one raffle prize.
The raffle begins on August 27, 2018 at 12:01am EDT, and ends on September 24, 2018 at 11:59pm EDT, or when all 5500 tickets sell out, whichever comes first. Tickets are $25 each or five for $100, and can be purchased here: http://bit.ly/MoogTrifectaRaffle
Funding raised from the raffle will be used to expand the Foundation’s hallmark educational project, Dr. Bob’s SoundSchool, and to help fund its newest project, the Moogseum, which was announced last week. The Moogseum, a planned interactive, immersive facility that will bring Bob Moog’s legacy and the science of sound and synthesis alive for people of all ages, will be located in downtown Asheville, NC. It is expected to open in April 2019, with an online Moogseum to follow later that year.
All three synthesizers were built in Moog Music’s Buffalo, NY factory in the early 1980s, have been fully restored, and are in excellent technical and cosmetic condition with minor flaws typical with vintage instruments.
The Memorymoog, serial number 1460, has an estimated value of $7,500. It combines six voice polyphony to create a unique polysynth with three voltage controlled, articulated oscillators. Each voice has its own 24dB voltage controlled filter. It is often referred to architecturally as six Minimoogs, and is renowned for its rich sound.
The Memorymoog being offered has been retrofitted with a sequencer and MIDI capabilities, normally found only in Memorymoog Plus models. It has been meticulously serviced by vintage synth specialist Wes Taggart, a lauded technician for Memorymoog restoration.
The Moog Source is a 37 key, two oscillator synthesizer with unique features such as patch memory storage, flat-panel membrane buttons, single data wheel assignment, and more. It has two voltage controlled analog oscillators and the legendary 24 dB Moog filter. The unit being offered is serial number 2221 and has an estimated value of $2,400. The Source has been used by such legends as Tangerine Dream, Jan Hammer, Depeche Mode, Devo, and Vince Clarke.
The Moog Rogue is a compact, two oscillator monophonic synthesizer often referred to as “small but mighty” for its legendary powerful bass sounds. Versatile and user-friendly enough to be used as the Taurus II Bass Pedal synth, the Rogue has been used by Will Butler of Arcade Fire, Vince Clarke, Peter Gabriel, Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead, Howard Jones, and more. The unit being offered, serial number 4462, has been restored by acclaimed restoration house Tone Tweakers, and is valued at $2,000.
No moment cements the TR-808 as a sex symbol quite like its role in “Sexual Healing.” And we may have a producer who found the actual drum machine used in the song.
As “Sexual Healing” opens, it’s just a slow, dry groove on this futuristic Japanese electronic box with a whisper over top. Then, that silky smooth keyboard part and crisp, funky bassline weave in together with the vocals. It’s deceptively simple stuff – and totally potent, proof of what electronic sounds can do.
That makes the TR-808 used in the track a genuine part of music history – even if at the time, it was just an inexpensive box. But where is that TR-808 now? We may have an answer.
None other than famed pioneering Belgian producer Kris Vanderheyden (best known as Insider, among other aliases) tells Roland and CDM that he’s got this very machine in his studio. Drum machines can’t talk (no soul and all), but Kris relates the story:
When I started out as a musician in the late 80’s, I was looking for some analog gear. New equipment was expensive but you could get good deals second hand.
I initially got my Roland TR-909 which I swapped for 5 mix cassette tapes – incredible huh? But back in those days it wasn’t such a big deal to own one.
Later on, I came across a guy named Eric who played in a New Wave band and was recording at Studio Katy in Belgium. The studio was only 5 miles from where I grew up. Eric and his band used to book the studio at night for financial reasons and Marvin Gaye was booked there during the day while recording his album “Midnight Love.”
One day, Eric left the band’s (his) Roland TR-808 at the studio and Marvin came in and started to play around. The rest is (“sexual”) history.
I bought that machine for one hundred and twenty dollars ($120.00). It’s just priceless now…
The story checks out – Midnight Love, including this single, was recorded at Studio Katy, Ohain, Belgium. This would appear to be validated by references in interviews in the 808 Movie, as well.
Take a look at Kris’ shots of the machine:
Kris’ story is a familiar microcosm of the 808’s role in music. But it also says something lovely about creativity and the toys we use, generally. It’s not that the TR-808 is a priceless invention. It’s a readily accessible, affordable machine that gets you into a flow. That’s certainly how I feel messing about with the 808’s latest successor, the TR-8S – and I mean that. As I got to hear from Susan Rogers at SONAR in June, creativity is this special state of mind. These devices can get us there, and then become something more.
It’s equal parts Polish Radio Experimental Studio and starship control panel. The Apparatum by Warsaw’s panGenerator proves that not only can everything old is new again – maybe it’s even newer.
Take a look:
The Apparatum is a new installation that reboots Communist-era work from the space age, bringing visual and optical and magnetic concepts into a playful synthesizer concept. It’s the latest work from interactive/media shop panGenerator from Warsaw.
In the early adventurous work in electronic music, there was nothing to take for granted. So it makes sense that Polish pioneer Bogusław Schaeffer would imagine an entirely new visual language to accompany the new sounds humans were hearing from their circuits. His Symphony – electronic music cued the engineer with those hieroglyph-like visuals, and inspires the sounds and visual language here.
But maybe that’s what modernity is now: now that we’re no longer wowed by digital, we’re sophisticated enough to see new potential for magnetic and optical techniques that had been discarded in the march to the new. Artists/researchers like Andrey Smirnov, who delve into the world of Soviet optical synthesis and Theremin, have regularly wondered what an alternate future would be like if radical optical and electro-magnetic techniques had continued to develop. Now, in works like this (and work by artists like Derek Holzer) make that alternate reality our own.
The work also draws from the design aesthetics and the engineering of the original, legendary Polish studio:
The physical form is inspired by the general aesthetics of the Studio’s famous “Black Room” designed by Oskar Hansen. The electroacoustic generators and filters were arranged in a modular fashion inside two steel frames – the construction element that we’ve referred to in our design.
Magnetic tape was the primary medium used in the Polish Radio Experimental Studio. We’re also using two types of “tape samplers” – two 2-track loops and three one-shot linear tape samplers. To obtain noise and basic tones we’re utilising purely analog optical generators based on spinning discs with graphical patterns.
This may just look like digital tech aping the original, but they’ve genuinely made a hybrid. DC motors spin discs made of plexiglass, covered in opaque black foil on one side, with an LED and photoresistor. That optical detector feeds an analog signal, fed directly to the mixer. They’re real, opto-analog oscillators.
The magnetic part is real, too. 2-3 second tape loops record samples, with variable-speed playback, on top of 3 one-shots that move the magnetic head along the tape (with in turn varies pitch). So you have digitally-controlled magnetic tape and opto-analog synthesis – a fusion of past and present tech. It takes the historical sound techniques, but produces a more accessible, dynamic interface with the computer – digital input, analog output.
And visitors to the exhibition get real recorded results, too – just as they would if they stepped into the historical electroacoustic studio. There’s a printout of the score, plus a digital record uploaded to a server.
The historical use of tape is reimagined with real, digitally-controlled magnetic tape sampling.
The historical gear that inspired the new invention, side by side with the results.
Visual scores accompany the sonic creations.
The Apparatum will make the trip this weekend to Karlsruhe, Germany, where it will accompany an exhibition on now through the start of next year on the historical Polish studio:
A new documentary is poised to take what looks like a personal, thrilling look at the UK turntablism revolution.
The film is “The Man from Mo’Wax,” a documentary set to premiere at the end of August, with a full digital release (disc and download) on September 10.
The film centers on James Lavelle and his label, the pioneering purveyor of trip hop, alternative hip hop, and other things involving vinyl. And because of Mo’Wax’s seminal role in the 90s UK music scene, you get Lavelle’s story, but a lot more. DJ Shadow, Joshua Homme, Badly Drawn Boy,
Robert Del Naja (3D), Ian Brown, Futura, Thom Yorke and Grandmaster Flash… you name them, they’re in this picture. And it’s a coming of age story about Lavelle, who launched his DJ career at 14 and the label at 18 – all the ups an downs.
And of course, a lot of what sampling and beat-driven music is today is connected to what happens in this film.
How you get to watch this – apart from the YouTube trailed we’ve embedded here – is also rather interesting. Via something dubbed ourscreen, you can actually order up a screening at a participating local cinema… erm, provided you’re in the UK. For the rest of us, of course, we can just wait some extra days and microwave some popcorn and make every crowd around our MacBook or something.
The real fun will be for Londoners on the premiere date:
On Thursday, 30 August at 20:30, London’s BFI Southbank will host a premiere launch screening alongside a live Q&A with James Lavelle and the filmmakers. The event will also feature a Pitchblack Playback of an exclusive mix from UNKLE’s new forthcoming album. Plus, join us for an after-party with a live DJ set from Lavelle. The Q&A with James Lavelle will also be broadcast via Facebook Live from the BFI.
Given the subject of the film, of course there’s also a lovely limited edition record to go with it:
From the extraordinary first digital breakthroughs of the 70s, when lightbulbs stood in for LEDs, to what may have been the first use of the word “plug-in,” we the inventors of Eventide’s classics – who now have a Grammy nod of their own.
Rock and pop have their heroes, their great records. But when you’ve got an engineering hero, their work finds realization behind the scenes in all that music, in hit music and obscure music. And then it can find its way into your work, too.
These inventions have already indirectly won plenty of Grammy Awards, if you care about that sort of thing. But at the beginning of this year, the pioneers at Eventide got a Lifetime Achievement Award, putting their technical achievements alongside the musical contributions of Tina Turner, Emmylou Harris, and Queen, among others.
Why are these engineers smiling? Because they got a Grammy for their inventions. Tony Agnello (left) and Richard Factor (right) at the headquarters.
Electrical engineers and inventors are rarely household names. But you’ve heard the creations of Richard Factor and Tony Agnello, who remain at Eventide today (as do those inventions, in various hardware and software recreations, including for the Universal Audio platform). For instance, David Bowie’s “Low,” Kraftwerk’s “Computer World” and AC/DC’s “Back In Black” all use their H910 harmonizer, the gear called out specifically by the Grammy organization. And that’s before even getting into Eventide’s harmonizers, delays, the Omnipressor, and many others.
1974 radio advertising:
Here’s the thing – whether or not you care about sounding like a classic record or lived through all of the 1970s (that’s, uh, “not so much” for me on both of those, sorry), the story of how this gear was made is totally fascinating. You’d expect an electrical engineering tale to be dry as dust, but – this is frontier adventure stuff, like, if you’re a total nerd.
Here’s the story of the DDL 1745 from 1971, back when engineers had to “rewind the f***ing tape machines” just to hear a delay.
Eventide founder Richard Factor started experimenting with digital delays while working a day job in the defense industry, at the height of the Vietnam War, working with shift registers that work in bits.
Their advice from the 70s still holds. What do you do with a delay? “Put stuff in it!” Do you need to know what the knobs are doing? No! (Sorry, I may have just spoiled potentially thousands of dollars in audio training. My apologies to the sound schools of the world.)
Susan Rogers of Prince fame (who we’ve been talking about lately) also talks about how she “had to have” her Eventide harmonizer and delays. I now have come to feel that way about my plug-in folder, and their software recreations, just because then you have the ability to dial up unexpected possibilities.
Or, there’s the Omnipressor, the classic early 70s gear that introduced the very concept of the dynamics processor. Here, inventor Richard Factor explains how its creation grew out of the Richard Nixon tapes. No – seriously. I’ll let him tell the story:
Tony deals with those philosophical questions of imaginative possibility, perhaps most eloquently – in a way perhaps only an engineer can. Let’s get to it.
The first commercial digital delay looked like… this. DDL1745, 1971.
So you’ve already told this amazing story of the Omnipressor. Maybe you can tell us a bit about how the H910 came about?
When I joined Eventide in early 1973, the first model of the Digital Delay Line, the DDL1745, had just started shipping. At that time, there were no digital audio products of any kind in any studio anywhere.
The DDL was a primitive box. It predated memory (no RAM), LEDs (it had incandescent bulbs), and integrated Analog-to-Digital Converters [ADCs]. It offered 200 msec of delay for the price of a new car — US$4,100 in 1973 which is equivalent to ~$22,000 today! The fact is that DDLs were expensive and rare and only installed in a few world-class studios. They were used to replace tape delay.
At the time, studios were using tape delay for ADT (automatic double tracking) and, in some cases, as a pre-delay to feed plate reverbs. Plate reverbs had replaced ‘echo chambers’ but fell short in that, unlike a real room, a plate reverb’s onset is instantaneous.
I don’t believe that any recording studio had more than one DDL installed because they were so expensive. I was lucky. On the second floor of Eventide’s building was a recording studio – Sound Exchange. I was able to use the studio when it wasn’t booked to record my friends and relatives. And I had access to several DDLs! I remember carrying a few DDLs up to the studio and patching them into the console and having fun (a la Les Paul) with varying delay and using the console’s faders and feedback. By 1974 Richard Factor had designed the 1745M DDL which used RAM and had an option for a simple pitch change module.
At that point, I became convinced that I could create a product that combined delay, feedback, and pitch change that would open up a world of possible effects. I also thought that a keyboard would make it possible to ‘play’ a harmony while singing. In fact, my prototype had a 2-octave keyboard bolted to the top. Playing the keyboard was unorthodox in that center C was unison, C# would shift the voice up a half step, B down a half step, etc.
Now you can “f***” (to use the technical term) with the H910 in plug-in form, which turns out to be f***ing fun, actually.
Squint at this outboard gear shot for Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and you can see the H910 – essential.
I liked in particular the idea of trying things out from an engineering perspective – as you put it, from what you think might sound interesting, rather than guessing in advance what the musical application would be. So, how do you decide something will sound interesting before it exists? How much is trial and error; how much do you envision how things will sound in advance?
Hmmm. First off, it starts with a technical advance. Integrated circuits made digital audio practical and every advance in technology makes new techniques/things possible, and new capabilities ensue.
At the dawn of digital audio, the mission was clear and simple from my perspective. I had studied DSP in grad school and read about the work being done at places like Bell Labs. At the time, the researchers couldn’t experiment with real-time audio, which was a huge limitation.
It was obvious that if you could digitize audio, you could delay it. It was also somewhat obvious that you should be able to play the audio back at a different rate than it was recorded (sampled). The question was, how can you do that without changing duration? In retrospect, splicing is obvious and that’s what I did in the H910. Splicing resulted in glitches, however (I’m pretty sure that we introduced that word into the audio lexicon). So, my next challenge: I needed to come up with a method for splicing without glitches.
My design of the H949 was the first de-glitched pitch changer. With that project behind me, the next obvious challenge was digitally simulating a room – reverb. At Bell Labs, Manfred Schroeder had done some preliminary work, and I tried implementing his approach, but the results were awful. I came to the conclusion that I needed a programmable array processor to meet this challenge. This was before DSP chips became available. I designed the SP2016 and developed reverb algorithms that are now available as plug-ins and still highly regarded.
The “de-glitched” classic, the H949, also in plug-in form (thanks to Eventide Anthology).
Given that the SP2016 was general purpose, I had some other ideas that seemed obvious. For instance, Band Delays — create a set of band pass filters and delay their outputs differentially. Suzanne Ciani famously used Band Delays on her ground-breaking “Seven Waves” composition.
I also developed vocoders, timescramble, and gated reverb for the SP2016. The SP2016 had a complete development system that allowed third parties to create their own effects. The effects were stored in EPROMs (Erasable Programmable Read Only Memory) that plugged into sockets. We called them ‘plug-ins’ back in 1982 long before anyone else in the audio community used that phase.
Did I think that these effects would be musical? Yes! For example, while my goal with reverb was to create a convincing simulation of a real room, I mindfully brought out user controls to allow the algorithm to sound unreal. I was never concerned that an artist would have a ‘failure of imagination.’ I simply strove to create new and flexible tools.
On that same note, I wonder if maybe what made this inventions – and hopefully future inventions – useful to musicians is that they were just some new sound. Do you get the sense that this makes them more useful in different musical applications, more novel? Or maybe you just don’t know in advance?
I think that novel is good in that it broadens the acoustic pallet. Music is a uniquely human phenomenon. It conveys emotion in a rich and powerful way. Broadening the pallet broadens the impact. We don’t create a single static effect; we create a tool that can be manipulated. Our recent breakthrough with Physion is a wonderful example. We’re now able to surgically separate the tonal and transient components of a sound – what the artist does what does pieces of the puzzle is up to them.
It’s funny in that a sound is a sound. It’s tonal and transient components are simply have we perceive the sound. I find it amazing that our team has developed software that perceives these components of sound the way that we humans do and have figured out how to split sounds accordingly.
We’re really fortunate to have all these reissues. Your Grammy nomination referred mainly seminal, big-selling records. Do you think there’s special significance to that – or have you found interest in more experimental applications? What about your users, are they largely looking to recreate those things, or to find new applications – or is it a balance of those two things?
Well the H910 was used not only because it did something new but because it had a particular sound. In the same sense that artists prefer different mics or EQs or amps, a device like the H910 has a certain characteristic. The digital portion of the H910 was simple – most of the audio path was analog and the analog portion was tuned to sound good to me! Recreating the analog subtleties and (not so subtleties) was quite the challenge but I think nailed it. The Omnipressor is another case in point. That product deserves a lot more respect and attention than it gets and the plugin emulation is excellent. On the other hand, our emulation of the Instant Phaser isn’t even close. That’s why we don’t offer it as a standalone plugin. In fact, we’re working on a much improved version of it and are getting pretty darn close. Stay tuned…
On the third hand, our Stereo Room emulation of the original reverb of the SP2016 is very close, but even so, we’re not satisfied so we’re busily measuring it in fine detail with the hope of improving it. In fact, there are a couple of other SP2016 reverbs that were popular and we’ve taken a look at emulating those.
The Stereo Room plug-in recreates the Eventide SP2016 reverb. And while it’s really good, Tony says they’re still thinking how to make it better – ah, obsessive engineers, we love you.
And, yes while there’s a balance between old and new, our goal is always to take the next step. The algorithms in our stompboxes and plugins are mostly new and in a few cases ground-breaking. Crushstation, PitchFuzz and Sculpt represent advances in simulating the non-linearities of analog distortion.
[Ed.: This is a topic I’ve heard repeated many, many times by DSP engineers. If you’re curious why software sounds better, and why it now can pass for outboard gear whereas in the past it very much couldn’t, the ability to recreate analog distortion is a big key. And it turns out our ears seem to like those kind of non-linearities, with or without a historical context.]
What’s the relationship you have with engineers and artists? What kind of feedback do you get from them – and does it change your products at all? (Any specific examples in terms of products we’d know?)
We have a good relationship with artists. They give us ideas for new products and, more often, help us create better UIs by explaining how they would like to work.
One specific example that is our work with Tony Visconti. I am honored that he was open to working with us to create a plug-in, Tverb, that emulated his 3 mic recording technique used on Bowie’s “Heroes.” Tony was generous with his time and brilliant in suggesting enhancements that weren’t possible in the real world. The industry response to Tverb has been incredibly gratifying – there is nothing else like it.
Eventide’s Tverb plug-in, which allows you, impossibly, to say “I wish I had Tony Visconti’s entire recording studio rig from “Heroes” on this channel in my DAW.” And it does still more from there. Visconti himself was a collaborator.
We are currently exploring new ways to use our structural effects method and having discussions with engineers and artists. We also have a few secret projects.
How would you relate what something like the H9 or the H9000 [Eventide’s new digital effects platforms] is to the early history like the H910 and Omnipressor? What does that heritage mean – and what do you do to move it forward? Where do recreations fit in with the newer ideas?
The consistent thread over all these years is ‘the next step.’ As technology advances, as processing power increases, new techniques and new approaches become possible. The H9000 is capable of thousands of times the sheer processing power of the H910, plus it is our first network-attached processor. Its ability to sit on an audio network and handle 32 channels of audio opens up possibilities for surround processing.
Ed.: I tried out the H9000 in a technical demo at AES in Berlin last year. It’s astonishingly powerful – and also represents the first Eventide gear to make use of the ARM platform instead of DSPs (or native software running on Intel, etc.).
One major difference, obviously, is that you now have so many plug-in users – even so many more hardware users than before. What does it mean for Eventide to have a global culture where there are so many producers? Is that expanding the kind of musical applications?
As I said earlier, there is no fear of failure of imagination of our species. Art and music define us, enrich us. The more the merrier.
What was your experience of the Grammies – obviously, nice to have this recognition; did anything come out of it personally or in terms of how this made people reflect on Eventide’s history and present?
The ‘lifetime achievement’ aspect if the Grammy award is confirmation that I’m old.
Ha, well you just have to achieve more after, and you’re fine! Thanks, Tony – as far as I’m concerned, your stuff always makes me feel like a kid.
Also, because I know that bundle is out of reach of beginning producers or musicians on a budget, it’s worth checking out Gobbler’s subscription plans. That gives you all the essentials here, including my personal must-haves, the H3000 band delays, Omnipressor, Blackhole reverb, and the H910, plus – well a lot of other great ones, too:
Maybe it’s time for the idea of a “commons” to get a new boost. Whatever the reason, BBC’s 16,000 sound effects are available to download – but with strings attached.
The BBC Sound Effects site offering has gotten plenty of online sharing. This is a sound effects library culled from the archives of the BBC and its Radiophonic Workshop, a selection of sounds dug up from broadcast sound work. There’s both synthetic sound design and field recording work – sometimes not really identified as such. I know this, because I used what I believe is the edition of this that was once released on a big series of CDs.
If you just want to listen to some interesting sounds, you can stream or download WAV files of sounds ranging from “‘Pystyll Rhadn’ falls, North Wales, with birdsong” to lorries, and, this being England, lots of exotic sounds from the far reaches of the former British Empire and a bunch of business to do with ships. (There’s a reason English is dotted with obscure boat-related idioms like saying someone is “two sheets to the wind” when they’re drunk.)
And it’s good fun. Right now the sound of a parrot is trending:
The catch is, you’re probably thinking of downloading those files and making a Deep House track with the parrot. But you can’t – not legally. If you want, you can wade through the murky terms, which seem to be written for schoolchildren in terms of language level, but oddly evasive about what it is you’re actually allowed to do:
I can save you the trouble, though. There’s no explicit allowance for derivative works, which rules out even “non-commercial” sampling. That is, your parrot track is out, even if you plan to give it away. Non-commercial use itself suggests you need to have a site that not only has no ads (like this one does), but may even explicitly have some educational purpose. “Personal” use implies you can sample the sounds, so long as no one else hears your remix, which rather defeats the point. So you almost certainly can’t sample the parrot and even upload the result to SoundCloud.
The easy way to look at this is, you can build an educational app around these sounds or listen to them on your own, but you can’t really use them the way you’d tend to use sound samples.
1936 Raleigh Sports Bike
Euston Railway Station
St. Paul’s Cathedral
1986 Silver Sprite Rolls Royce
Audience Reactions at the Royal Albert Hall
County Cricket Match
Markets in Morocco, Algeria, Niger, Zaire, Ethiopia, Kenya…
I’m sure the CDs themselves also had a lot of license restrictions attached, though owning a physical object might make you feel as though you had purchased rights for use.
British taxpayer license fees fund this sort of work, just as taxpayer money funds media in many countries of the world. That raises the question of what a government funded archive should be, and how it should be made available.
I’m not arguing the BBC have made the wrong choice. But it’s clear that there are two divergent views on public archives and content in the public sphere. One looks like this: the government retains copyright, and you can’t really use them beyond “research” purposes. The other is more permissive. For instance, the US space program actually does allow commercial use of a lot of its materials, provided an endorsement is implied. So even while releasing content into the public domain, the US government is able to avoid implications of endorsement or people posing as their space agency, which the BBC agreement above does, while allowing people to get creative with their materials.
And that ability to be creative is precisely what’s lacking in the BBC offering. Restricting content to “research” and “noncommercial” uses sounds like a lofty goal, but it often rules out the activities of artists – the very impulses that generated all those BBC sound effects in the first place. The reason is, unless you explicitly allow derivative and (often) even commercial use, it’s too easy for those creative uses to technical qualify as a violation.
It seems like this idea of commons could use a fresh boost, around the world. (The British taxpayer-funded sounds should have been an easy one; it gets much harder as you go to other parts of the world.)
The US government’s notions of public access content date back to the 1960s. But there are signs governments can begin fresh, digital-friendly initiatives. For one example, look to the European Space Agency, who last year managed an open access programs across a variety of different governments and private contractors (no small task):
By the way, speaking of Creative Commons: the feature image for this story comes from Paul Hudson, taken at Rough Trade East (of a tape machine from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop collection), under the attribution-only CC-BY license. It was released on Flickr, from a time when this sort of license metadata was deemed important.
At the tail end of China’s Cultural Revolution, one inventor secretly created a futuristic take on traditional instruments – and it easily still inspires today.
I don’t know much about this instrument, but given CDM’s readership, I expect our collective knowledge should say something (not to mention some of you speak the language). But according to the video, it’s the work of Tian Jin Qin, a ribbon-controlled analog synthesizer first prototyped in 1978 and featured here in a documentary movie entitled “Dian Zi Qin / 电子琴” (1980).
There’s some irony to the fact that a simple touch instrument was something driven underground in China just one generation ago. Now, of course, China leads the world in manufacturing touch interfaces, has been the center of a global revolution in touch-powered smartphones (based loosely on the same principle, even), and even drives a significant portion of today’s technological innovation.
But… even without getting into that, this design is freaking great. It’ll make you immediately wonder why a single ribbon design is so popular, when the ability to finger multiple ribbons, fretless style, both relates to traditional instrument designs and allows more sophisticated melodic playing and expression.
Like… you’ll watch this video and want to go build one right now.
The synth is essentially two connected designs. An main synth console features organ-like push-button timbre controls and rotaries, plus four touch plates that respond both to being depressed and to continuous control vertically along the surface. (That arrangement, in turn, closely resembles the ROLI Seaboard keys, as well as having some lineage to the Buchla modular’s touch plates. In fact, a couple elements of the design suggest that the creator may have seen something like the Buchla 112 keyboard.)
The Chinese twist, though, is really the upright, fretless touch interface. This instrument is as subtle and sophisticated as Keith Emerson’s ribbon controller for the Moog wasn’t. Zithers are among the most ancient of instruments across a range of cultures, as antecedents what we’d now consider both southeast Asian and European musics. Someone following the narration here or with background in Chinese instruments (which I largely lack) could say more, but it seems inspired by instruments like the guqin. That family of instrument can be plucked or fingered with glissandi (or played with a slide). The electronic rendition here simplifies a bit by using 4 metal strips whereas Chinese classical instruments can feature more strings.
So I will indeed put this out to CDM readers. Anyone out there who’s done research on this creator or knows about this instrument?
Anyone built something like this?
(Apologies, I’d normally do the research first and then write but … as Ted Pallas who tipped me off to this promised, I indeed wanted to share it right away.)
For all the turbulence of our modern time, one thing I believe can keep us out of a Dark Ages is the fact that we are more connected globally than ever, or at least potentially so. From the walls around China and the east to the former Iron Curtain, we’re discovering that a lot of the people kept unknown to those of us in the West were pretty ingenious. And maybe we get a second chance to learn from them and share.
Uli Behringer is apparently just getting started trolling the industry, promising US$49-99 Eurorack. But so far, that announcement involves renderings of Roland gear and a plea for user forums to tell them what to do.
That’s right: even as people are buzzing about Behringer, all we’ve got are some shady renders, and a forum post. The designs are straight from decades-old Roland gear. There’s not even the work to engineer them. And the rest is talk.
Heck, I could do this. CDM is proud to bring you $19 Eurorack modules. Of what? Don’t know. You tell us. When? Someday. How will they work? Oh, they might use an old design. Or you might design them. Don’t know – again, that’s up to you!
Let’s be clear: promising Eurorack modules for under a hundred bucks ought to be a popular idea. But then it’s easy to promise something. And it’s perhaps worth pointing out, if you don’t mind doing some soldering yourself – or even prefer that – you can assemble a budget modular system. Or, heck, you can run VCV Rack and even buy some top-quality modules for it for $100, all in. But that’s unlikely to stop random people on forums and news comments, who will embrace the idea that Behringer alone could do modular on a budget.
Nor are these new designs. Behringer describes them as related to the “legacy 100m” modules. Uh… that “legacy” would be Roland’s. And as with other Behringer forum posts targeting Roland, there seems to be no original idea other than copying what Roland has done. The timing is suspicious, as well. Uli took to the forums Saturday. CDM readers will know that we shared the news (along with some German press also in attendance) that Roland was reviving its 100M line with new SYSTEM-500 modules, showing them here in Berlin on Thursday. And of course, that’s an extension of a line that already existed.
Clones seem to be the order of the day, as Behringer promises to “bring back” more “legacy” hardware. In fact, Behringer are so hard up for ideas of what to actually do, they’re going beyond just posting quick what-if renders of Roland modules, or continuing this trend of posting teasers as a series of questions. (“What do you want to see? What should we charge? What color should this be? What do you want for lunch?”) Behringer are now posting to message forums asking for people to submit ideas:
You present is with your design (you need to have at least a working prototype) and perhaps show us a video etc. so we can understand your concept.
Provided you are OK with it, we could then post the video here and if there is enough interest, we would consider manufacturing and distributing the product for you. In return we would allow you to get a percentage of the revenue.
At the same time we would be featuring you and your designs so you get the well deserved exposure.
Here’s the thing: there’s already a community of engineers making hardware. Roland are certainly not above criticism, but to the credit of the Japanese giant, when they entered the market they partnered directly with an existing vendor. (On the modular side, they worked with Malekko Heavy Industry. The Roland Boutique Series SE-02 was made with Studio Electronics.) Buchla are working with original engineers, and many of the Buchla-inspired designs are made by people with years of experience doing Buchla repair. Moog are returning not just to original designs but original parts. I could go on …
And that’s to say nothing of vendors from MakeNoise to Mutable Instruments doing original designs. That originality translates into sound.
Behringer’s trolling is way ahead of their actual products. The Minimoog clone Behringer-D is accurate – and accurately reproduces the tuning instability of the original’s analog oscillators. The Behringer DeepMind is actually a pretty decent synth, but it’s also got competition in the same price range – some of it with fresher ideas – and Behringer’s endless forum posts about speculative products and clones ironically distract from the accomplishments on their one genuinely original synth.
I think the Eurorack manufacturing community is headed into some tougher times, especially as a glut of used products catches up faster than the market can grow. And price pressure will surely become a reality.
But what’s most stunning of all is that Behringer is disrupting the industry and attracting attention without actually making anything. This may give them additional attention, but somebody ought to same something.
Even as modular synths make a comeback, the definitive work on the topic languishes out of print since its 1972 publication. But now, one synth maker is translating its ideas to video.
The folks at Make Noise, who have been one of the key makers behind Eurorack’s growth (and a leader in on the American side of the pond), have gone all the way back to 1972 to find a reference to the fundamentals behind modular synthesis.
“Where do I find a textbook on modular synthesis?” isn’t an easy question to answer. A lot of understanding modular comes from a weird combination of received knowledge, hearsay, various example patches (some of them also dating back to the 60s and 70s), and bits and pieces scattered around print and online.
But Allen Strange’s Electronic Music: Systems, techniques, and controls covers actual theory. It treats the notions of modular synthesis as a fundamental set of skills. It’s just now out of print, and a used copy could cost you $200-300 because of automated online pricing (whether anyone would actually pay that).
So it’s great to see Make Noise take this on – if nothing else, as a way to frame teaching their own modules.
And… uh, you might find a PDF of the original text. (I think most people read my own book in pirated form, especially in its Russian and Polish translations – seriously – so I’m looking at this myself as a writer and sometimes educator and pondering what the best way is to teach modular in 2018.)
I’m definitely watching and subscribing to this one, though – and this first video gives me an idea… excuse me, time to load up Pd, Reaktor, and VCV Rack again!
Allen Strange wrote the book on modular synthesizers in the 1970s. Electronic Music: Systems, Techniques, and Controls. Unfortunately since the expanded 1982 edition, it has never been reprinted, and in today’s landscape where more people have access to modular synths than ever before, very few have access to the knowledge contained within. This video series will explore patches both basic and advanced from Strange’s text. Even the simplest patches here yield kernels of knowledge that can be expanded upon in infinite ways. I have been heavily influenced by Strange since long before I became a modular synth educator. Please share this knowledge far and wide. The first video in the series covers one basic and one slightly less basic patch using envelopes.