Archive for January, 2012

NAMM 2012

Posted in modular synthesizers with tags , , , , , , , on January 30, 2012 by pyraphonic

This year I had my first NAMM experience. I only attended one of the four days. Once I saw how gigantic it is, I understood why it is four days long. I barely got to see the several main booths I wanted to see as it was totally overwhelming. Thankfully, I was only interested in the modular synthesizers and a few other musical oddities.

Here is Gur from Tiptop Audio showing off several new modules. Among them were the BD808 and SD808 which are respectively the bass drum and the snare drum circuits from the venerable Roland TR-808 drum machine adapted for eurorack format and they sound fantastic. He also unveiled an unbelievable polyphonic oscillator which is the first in a series of polyphonic modules. It’s called the P3000 and this will be part of a sub-format of eurorack using 8-pin jacks and cables. Madman, genius, or both?

Below is Tony from Make Noise who also unveiled some interesting new modules. One is a new oscillator called the Dual Prismatic Oscillator capable of some really nice timbres. Another is a collaboration with Tom Erbe called the Echophon which is a pitch shifting delay and you can hear Richard Devine running his 606 through it here. The third is a mystery module that I believe is some type of oscillator.

All this incredible new stuff coming out for eurorack and my case is full. I’m gonna need a bigger boat.

I also went to the Buchla booth where they had several systems set up, among them was the new Skylab shown below. I would love to own one some day, but this unit costs roughly twice as much as my car.

It was hard to get good photos amid the chaos of NAMM, as exemplified by the two photos below of legendary Buchla users Morton Subotnick and Suzanne Ciani. Both with their eyes closed. Maybe they were listening to the Buchlas plunking and droning in the background.

Suzanne had on a vest with LEDs embedded in the lapel and on the back which blinked on and off in patterns powered by battery backs on the back.

Below are Don and Morton who worked together when Don was building his first synthesizers. I’m glad they did, as many of the modules in my current system were influenced by Don’s late sixties and seventies creations.

What’s funny about this post is that NAMM is all about equipment yet most of the photos I took were of people. I suppose that is because it takes these incredibly talented people to create worthwhile instruments just as it takes incredibly talented people to make decent music and sounds with that equipment. It was inspiring and fun meeting these people and talking with them about their work.

Having said that, here’s the obligatory gear shot of the Swarmatron:

Created by cousins Brian and Leon Dewan who make really interesting equipment, including the Dual Primate Console which they play together. The Swarmatron was used by Trent Reznor on the soundtracks to The Social Network and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Thanks to Gur for setting me up with a NAMM badge – it was quite the spectacle.

Party Chambers – Music from the Roland PMA-5

Posted in synthesizers with tags on January 16, 2012 by pyraphonic

The Roland PMA-5 is a hand-held composition unit from 1996 that has a touchscreen interface with a stylus. Before today’s pocket computers (called ‘smart phones’ by their users) this was quite a novel device. I bought one cheaply on the used market in 2006 and decided to make some music using ONLY the PMA-5. I composed one track on an airplane and another in bed while my wife was asleep next to me. Some of the results are posted on MySpace under the moniker “Party Chambers”. Check out the tracks here:

Party Chambers

Optigan – the early 1970s poor-man’s Mellotron from Mattel

Posted in synthesizers with tags on January 7, 2012 by pyraphonic

The Optigan is an “optical organ” from the early 70s created and sold by Mattel that uses waveforms printed onto clear discs which are read much the way a movie soundtrack is read off of films. As of 2011, they can be found on the used market in the neighborhood of $400 USD, but the discs can often fetch $20-50 USD each, so keep that in mind. In addition to that, they are notoriously finicky and require a lot of patience and maintenance. Although there is no needle (light shining through the discs is read by photocells) there is still a scratching sound imparted on the output, and the high frequencies are quite muted giving the sound a haunted, dated feel.

Everything you could possibly want to know about them and more can be obtained here via Pea Hicks’ incredible labor of love:

I recently used my Optigan when I was asked by the Language Dept. to supply music for their collaboration with Meghan Eplett for a Kate Spade special project called “Orange“. The music needed to be cyclical, upbeat, whimsical, playful and suit the lo-fi nature of the animation, and I thought the Optigan (using the disc called “Rollin’ Easy”) met those requirements quite well.

Here is the video:

I obtained my Optigan in late 2009 at a thrift store in Michigan while visiting family for the holidays. It came with 18 discs. It cost me…$9.99 USD. Yep, ten dollars. Though I was 2000 miles away from home, I couldn’t pass up such a deal.

The first order of business was to test it out – it actually worked but only two of the many chord buttons were functioning and the 5 ‘fill’ buttons were intermittent. The next task was to figure out how to get it home. I naturally went straight to Pea Hicks’ Optigan site I mentioned above and started searching. Turns out the model I picked up (35011) could be subjected to a mod lovingly named the “Choptigan” – in other words, the speakers and pedal could be removed from the circuit and the remaining necessary components from the bottom could be relocated to the top section. Then the top could be removed making the Optigan much like a really thick and super heavy keyboard.

Thankfully, my in-laws not only allowed me to perform this absurd task in their home, they also had a giant pile of inch-thick cardboard which I ended up using to pack up the Choptigan for shipping to California. Ground shipping was $52.47 bringing my total cost up to $62.46 USD.

Incredibly, it survived the shipping to Los Angeles with no problems which surprised me considering the electro-mechanical nature of the inner workings as well as its age. Right away I took it all apart for cleaning and to remove the foam that turns to sludge in the chord button section (see it below to the left).

Yeah, this is a bit better.

Once I reassembled the unit all buttons and keys worked perfectly. Next I sanded down the wood and pondered what color to stain it, even though it looked kinda cool unfinished.

My wife helped me stain it a reddish-orange and give it a nice clear coat. Here is where it currently lives between my Rhodes piano and Roland RS-202 String synth.

(What’s with the Roland D-5 you ask? I got it for $25 at a yard sale and use it as a MIDI controller for my Akai S-900 sampler)


My Choptigan had been sitting on a couple blocks of wood on the Rhodes as some of the mechanics extend below the upper wooden housing when the top section is removed. I rearranged my studio recently and finally built a proper bottom and finished the Choptigan mod for real:

I used 1×1’s framed out to fit snugly recessed into the bottom and cut a piece of masonite to size. I then stained the wood and added rubber feet. Done!