Tag Archives: Thingamajigs

sip4: cricket v. space invader

In week four of Synth in Place, the online course in DIY synthesizers taught by Kirk Pearson of Dogbotic sound labs, in collaboration with Thingamajigs, we focused on the basic components and technology of commercially produced music synthesizers, and we looked at plans for making two simple synths: one that sound like crickets, and one that can replicate the sounds of 1980s Atari games like Space Invaders.

Our inspiration this week came from Thaddeus Cahill’s prescient 1897 invention, the Telharmonium. This awesome contraption was a synthesizer long before the invention of synthesizers, music amplification before the invention of amplifiers and loudspeakers, a music streaming service long before the internet. Sadly, the Telharmonium was never a commercial success, because it required the nascent telephone network for transmission services. But the demand for telephone service grew so rapidly, that there was no available bandwidth. However, its concepts didn’t disappear completely, as they led directly to development of the Hammond organ. And where would jazz, and rock, and church music be without that?

Breaking down the inner workings of a commercially produced music synthesizer was a revelation for me, as I’d never put much thought to how they work. I’ve just always been content that they make cool sounds. As an introduction, we fist learned that all the commercial synthesizers out there are using the same fundamental technologies and components to synthesize sound, whether those sounds are in the realm most people would call music, i.e., imitating the sounds of acoustical music instruments, or less readily recognizable sounds we’re more likely to hear in the experimental music realm.

We also learned that there is an east-west divide in the synthesizer world, not in underlying technology, but in the nature of the human-to-machine interface, the mechanisms the operator uses to elicit sound from the electronic beast.

Robert Moog at his synthesizer in 1970

East coast synthesizers typically provide a primary interface in the form of a piano- or organ-style keyboard to play the instrument, along with various knobs and switches to customize the nature of the sound. The epitome of this east coast style are the Moog synthesizers, the name that many people think of when the topic of synthesizers comes up in conversation. Robert Moog (1934-2005) was an engineer, not a musician. So he spent a lot time with musicians when he was designing his device. His objective was to make the Moog Synthesizer something musicians would find interesting and easy to play, thus, the keyboard interface so you can play it like a piano or organ.

Moog presented the first public live demonstration of his synthesizer in 1964 at the Audio Engineering Society’s New York convention. A 2014 video made by Moog’s company looks back on that day and the legacy of the founder’s creation.

Soon thereafter, it was clear that the Moog Synthesizer was an instrument musicians could and would actually play, to amazing effects. Composer and performer Wendy Carlos blazed the trail for the possibilities of the Moog in the classical realm with her 1967 release Switched-on Bach. And Keith Emerson, of the power trio Emerson, Lake & Palmer, rocked the pop world with his Moog break in bandmate Greg Lake’s Lucky Man, changing pop music forever.

Stay tuned.

sip3: talking machines

by Klutzy McFumblefingers (aka Larry Dunn)

Week 3 of Synth in Place, the online course in DIY synthesizers taught by Kirk Pearson of Dogbotic sound labs, in collaboration with Thingamajigs, focused on two things: talk boxes and learning to solder.

One of our homework assignments from week 2 was to select a piece of music we like that makes use of some sort of machine/electronic manipulation of the human voice. My choice was rocker Joe Walsh’s 1973 mega-hit Rocky Mountain Way. When this song debuted, it was my first exposure to the use of the talk box, and I think its first use in rock & roll. In this live performance from the 2004 Crossroads Guitar Festival (below, starting about 3:20), you’ll see Joe switch guitars and move to a rig that includes a length of clear poly tubing stuck into his mouth. Joe starts vocalizing other-worldly sounds along with his guitar.

At, and since, the time I first heard this, I would describe it as “Joe is singing through his guitar.” But, as we learned in class, that is the opposite of what is happening. The sound from his guitar is playing into his mouth, from a speaker that is hooked up to that tubing. So what we are hearing is the sound of the guitar plus whatever sounds Joe vocalizes, using his own “human talk-box” (more on that later), and the combined, other-worldly sounds are then amplified through his microphone.

Rough illustration of a talk box setup

It turns out that a talk box is an exceedingly simple thing to build. The illustration above gives a rough idea of how the rig goes together. The red box marked “HOW YOU DO THIS IS THE TRICKY PART” requires only some simple electronics, essentially the oscillator circuit we have already built, plus a plastic funnel to wedge the speaker into (aimed at the small end of the funnel) and a length of tubing to bring it to your mouth.

We focused on the talk box in class, in part because it is so simple to make and could be a fun component of any DIY synths we might build. But it is also instructive in understanding the whole concept of synthesizing sound. The way a talk box works is remarkably similar to the way the human body synthesizes sounds, such as speech, using the combination of muscles and other structures that make up the human voice track. The diaphragm is the oscillator in human voice synthesis, and the throat, tongue, teeth, and lips are the filters that can be contorted into various shapes to make the sounds that are the building blocks of audible speech.

International Phonetic Alphabet

The ever-clever linguists of the International Phonetics Association have codified all the different sounds the human voice track can make in the International Phonetic Alphabet. Each of these sounds are classified as to which body organs are used to make them. You can demonstrate some of this for yourself, using The Pink Trombone site where you can interactively manipulate the human voice track and observe the resulting changes in the sounds produced.

Caution: HOT IRON LOOKS THE SAME AS COLD IRON!

The other focus of our week 3 class was on soldering, which is the key to migrating the oscillator circuits we made in week 2 from the prototyping breadboard environment to a permanent home on a circuit board. Soldering is both incredibly easy, and yet quite dangerous if you are not careful. That thing operates at about 700° Fahrenheit, and takes steady hands and mindfulness about where you set it down and how you pick it up. And the solder, as it melts, gives off some noxious fumes. I’m not at all sure septuagenarian Klutzy McFumblefingers with chronic lung disease (that’s me) is going to actually be doing any soldering. But it is still fun to learn how it is done and what it enables you to do.

After soldering all our oscillator components onto the circuit board, our next step is to morph this puppy into a talk box. We just need to solder connections to a small circular speaker into our circuit board, use a hot glue gun to cement the speaker, face-down, into the small end of a plastic funnel, and slather some silicone caulk over the back of the speaker so the sound doesn’t leak out backwards. Once the caulk is good and dry, attach the poly tubing to the funnel, then fire it up and start making your own electronic music with your mouth!

Before wrapping up this week’s post, I’ll call your attention to a real world example of just the sort of DIY synths we’re aiming to build. I happened to catch the video below in a post from the International Contemporary Ensemble‘s recently completed Ensemble Evolution summer workshop, presented in collaboration with The New School. Ensemble Evolution participant Leni Kreienberg is a musician and performance artist. Her primary practice focuses on voice and electronic creation and performance, aspiring to connect and blend genres. Her latest work focuses on using dance and movement-derived data to feed into musical computer systems. Here is Leni Kreienberg’s playground, from 2019.

Finally, if you’re wondering about that featured image on this post, I’ve so far neglected to point out that our class mascot is Dynomutt, the star of a spinoff from The Scooby-Do Show, from Hanna-Barberra, titled Dynomutt, Dog Wonder. According to Wikipedia, the show “centers on a Batman-esque superhero, the Blue Falcon, and his assistant, Dynomutt, a bumbling, yet effective robotic dog who can produce a seemingly infinite number of mechanical devices from his body.” Sadly, Dynomutt suffered the cruel Hollywood fate of being cancelled, in 1977, after just one season. But, take heart. Dynomutt is apparently back, in the brand new SCOOB! feature-length film.

sip2: amazing oscillators

by Larry Dunn, July 21, 2020

Create the Future! Building our own amazing oscillators was the objective for week 2 of Synth in Place, the online course in building DIY electronic music-making machines, taught by Kirk Pearson and presented by Dogbotic sounds labs and Thingamajigs. We took our inspiration for this challenge from a couple of truly awesome, and famous, installations, made by pioneers in the electronic museum field. One of these was composer and sound artist David Tudor‘s Rainforest V (variation 1), at the Museum of Modern Art in NYC, as shown in this 360° video.

Another inspiration came from Daphne Oram of the  BBC Radiophonic Workshop, which she founded in 1958. Her Oramics Machine is a visual synthesizer that uses drawn images to create sounds.

Of course, our first oscillators could not even scratch the surface of the genius of the work of these transformational thinkers and makers of electronic instruments. But we nonetheless are doing our work in homage to their path-setting work.

Oscillators are a foundational building block of electronic music synthesizers. For the uninitiated, an oscillator is an electronic gizmo that makes electrons move back and forth in a normal predicable manner. That predicable pattern can be exploited to activate other electronic components such as led-lights and speakers. With the proper setup of circuits and wiring to control the frequencies in the pattern of electron movement, what comes out of a speaker in such a setup can be pitched sounds in the range we typically call music.

Our first oscillator, a flashing LED (screen shot from Kirk Pearson demo video)

Using a breadboard (a temporary circuit board made for prototyping electronic gadgets); a 555 Timer (a ready-made microchip that can control electron pulses in a variety of ways, depending on how you connect it); a handful of capacitors, resistors, and wires; a bare-wire LED bulb; a potentiometer; a small speaker; and a 9-volt battery, with snap-on connector; we set out to create the future. Our first oscillators evolved through several versions. The first, show above, implements a simple strobe light. The frequency of flashing is controlled by your choice of capacitors. If we add a potentiometer (a sort of switch that can be used to vary the flow of electrons) and a speaker into our design and rewire things a bit, we suddenly have a user-controlled noise-making machine. And if we can get the frequencies in the right range, our noises will be pitched sounds we could call music. Below is a look at that setup.

Prototype sound-producing synthesizer (screen shot from Kirk Pearson demo video)

For the final trick, we ventured into Daphne Oram territory. Remove the potentiometer and do a bit of rewiring to connect a piece of corrugated cardboard filled with a heavy smear of pencil lead (graphite, i.e. carbon, i.e., a conductor of electrons) using an alligator clip in contact with the graphite smear, with a bare wire at the other end suitably connected to the breadboard. Use another wire of the same configuration, similarly connected, and you can “play” the graphite smear using a drawing gesture with the other alligator clip. Here is the way that setup looks.

Crude homage to Daphne Oram (screen shot from Kirk Pearson demo video)

I struggled to get my own version of these oscillator variations working properly. These components, especially breadboards, can be temperamental, to begin with. And whatever manual dexterity I once had (which was not that much) is fading fast with age. As arthritis and other woes take up residence in my hands, you can call me Klutzy McFumblefingers. But, despite the challenges to actually get these things working, learning how they go together to make newly-imagined instruments is a thoroughly engaging experience.

Stay tuned.

sip1: ins and outs

by Larry Dunn, July 15, 2020

Last week I attended the first session of an eight-week online class called Synth in Place (SIP). Our friend and sometimes collaborator Kirk Pearson is teaching the class, which is presented by Kirk’s own Dogbotic sound lab in collaboration with Thingamajigs, a genre-crossing arts organization that fosters music created with made and found materials and alternate tuning systems. I’m unsure what I may do in the future with the knowledge I gain in this class, but, at the very least, it seems like a fun way to chew up some pandemic quarantine hours.

There are nine brave souls in our section of the class (Kirk is juggling several similar sized sections, some with teenagers, and others with older folks like us). In our group, we range in age from 20s to 70s and bring an interesting mix of backgrounds − several composers and performers, an electrical engineer and circuit board designer, a graphic artist and animator. We are also quite geographically spread out, one of the benefits of online classes, with folks in London, New York, Toronto, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, California, Oberlin, and places in between. Two of the attendees are people I know, and who also know Kirk (much longer than I have), which Kirk said was unique to this section. Jim Pugliese is a composer, percussionist, and educator, who recently retired from teaching at the LaGuardia high school for music and the arts in New York City. Nick Dunston is a composer and bassist, who has know Kirk since they were both at LaGuardia, which is where they met Jim. Small world.

Fully kitted out for Synth in Place (photo: Larry Dunn)

The objective of the course is to learn the basics of making electronic music by tinkering with the various component parts and sub-assemblies that can be created and manipulated to make sounds come out of a speaker. A few weeks back, Kirk sent us all a box full of components and connectors, packaged in envelopes with delightful Dogbotic graphics, designed by Maisy Byerly. He also sent us a list our own tools and supplies we will need − soldering iron and solder, batteries, tape, wire cutters and strippers, etc. After we gain some facility with all these pieces and parts, we will start plotting how to choose specific components and put them together into a working synthesizer.

Maisy Byerly’s illustrations are a delight (photo Larry Dunn)

Our first experiment in electronic sound-making involved connecting a box grater to a 9-volt battery and a small speaker, and then playing the grater with a spoon. Kitchen tool music is right in my zone!

Simple electrified box grater instrument (photo: Larry Dunn)

Next we riffed on the old saying about having, or not having, two nickles to rub together. Due to rampant inflation in the intervening years, we used quarters, which we electrified, again with the nine volt battery, and also connected to the speaker. Paper clips in the speaker cone add a nice buzz.

Rubbing two electric quarters together; don’t forger the paper clips (photo: Larry Dunn)

For our final exercise in this session, we experimented with piezoelectric microphones, which pick up sound and vibrations from things they are attached to (or are resting upon them). We made some cool sounds with a metal ruler held over the microphone and extended off the table for twanging purposes. We also did some drumming directly on the microphone surface with the quarters. In both of these cases, we connected the microphone via alligator clips and a mini-plug patch cord to a powered speaker.

Fun times with a piezoelectric microphone (photo: Larry Dunn)

The most profound lesson of the day was Kirk’s assertion that making DIY electronic music is an inherently political act. The electronic instruments we are creating make sound by manipulating electric voltage patterns. And these are sounds that no acoustic instrument can make. Thus making DIY electronic music is a rejection of the known universe and the creation of your own.

Stay tuned, to learn about the new worlds my Synth in Place colleagues and I create.

Synth in Place, presented by Dogbotic and Thingamajigs (illustration by Maisy Byerly)