Wednesday, March 17, 2010

"Fringe" Synthesizers

There was a long process in putting together Operative where I was researching building a variety of synthesizers and other equipment and then using some concepts I found there (and in early acid house and psychoacoustic music) as the starting point for our early songs. I also wound up building a modular synthesizer of my own that's a relatively conventional analog synthesizer, mainly from printed circuit boards designed by Ray Wilson.

The stuff that really got my mind reeling is built by a category of builders, designers, musicians, and engineers that I call the "fringe synth" inventors. I don't mean that pejoratively, but because most of this stuff is so diabolically creative, utopian, and strangely beautiful that it is in a class all its own. Some of these instruments would work fine in a rock or pop band, but most tend towards idiosyncratic uses dreamed up by their creators. But I thought I'd share some of my findings with the heads of E-Blog.

The Stribe

The Stribe is actually not all that out there, its a USB connected touch controller for video and audio developed by Josh Boughey. Set-up something like a mixer LED readout with a touch sensitive ribbon controller over it, it can interface with computer based software like Ableton Live, Max/MSP, etc. It just looks amazing, though and has that Star Trek console feel that a good electronic music instrument should. I believe they were made for a second, but seem to exist mostly as an open source DIY project.

The Harmonicon

I know much less about the instruments on Nick's World of Synthesizers, but Nick is apparently one very prolific dude. My favorite has to be his Harmonicon, which is an analog just intonation synthesizer, which if it were easy to build, I would have built it long ago. Because it is an all analog synth and standard 1V/oct CV control doesn't really hack it for the mathematical precision of just scales, Nick went and build a separate oscillator per note for a total of 88 oscillators and what was probably a wiring nightmare, not to mention the hassle of doing whole number ratio math just to come up with your own scale! The Harmonicon is truly an epic work.

Eric Archer

electronic music from Eric Archer on Vimeo.

twelve tiny drum machines from Eric Archer on Vimeo.

Eric Archer rules. He makes electronic music instruments that are useful and familiar, but are out there enough in terms of design to place him marginally within this category. Above we have a brief tour of what I think includes some of Eric Archer's personal equipment for his group E Squared plus a few more inventions that have been available in small batches as kits. The second video is of the Andromeda Space Rockers, small modular drum machine circuits synchronized by infared light.

Eric also makes pen or pencil drawings using machines to make trippy, algorithmic patterns.


Last but not least, one of the big dogs, Peter Blasser of Baltimore, MD, Ciat-Lonbarde. Peter makes a variety of instruments including the Sidrassi Organ, a pressure sensitive organ, and the Cocolase voltage controlled 8 bit sampling delay box. Locally here in PDX, Ju Suk Reet Meate of Smegma makes great use out of the Sidrassi and Todd Dickerson of Soup Purse has elevated the finicky and insane Cocolase to a (somewhat) precise art. Ciat-Lonbarde's instruments are like psychedelic folk art and have a strangeness and mystery to their musical interface that's just plain uncommon. Liberate your mind and check out the Ciat-Lonbarde youtube playlist to see what I'm talking about. You need to experience the thing itself! Or if you're feeling crafty, do some clever Googling and search out Peter B's paper circuits, which offer glimpses at what a proper C-L machine can do.

I'm leaving out tons of inspiring builders and maniacs (I'm even leaving out locals, Folk-Tek, who deserve more than the quick mention here), but hopefully its good enough to get your brain jogging.


  1. Whoa! Super cool! It's nice to see the open circuitry of the synths. It's an invitation and reminder to break out of the mold and make your own sounds/ interface. Unfortunately making this stuff is way over my head, but I enjoy seeing and hearing these:)

  2. BTW Operative, I am looking forward to checking you out live sometime. I see you are playing the Xiu Xiu show soon at Holocene! See you there!

  3. Peter Blasser is a true pioneer. Should be a smorgasbord of this quality, but i guess the going is hard. sometimes Good noodles don't come without the drippy porch side, y'know? foque techgnostics, come out come out wherever you are

  4. Nice, I like the Eric Archer stuff.