D.I.Y. Analogue Synths
I try not to swear when I’m writing. This article really tested my resolve.
I set out to write a piece on analogue synths and ended up finding out about a local project that hybridises synths with stem cell research and neural network research.
Analogue. The word can make you excited, it can make you roll your eyes. I’m a massive hipster and also an engineer. I love dorking out on audio gear, so I thought I’d share a little information and opinion. Hopefully more of the former.
Because we are biased to favour sounds and sights that are familiar to us, many modern, digitally created artworks go to great lengths to emulate the characteristics of the equipment of yesteryear. One of my favourite examples of this, is in the realm of cinematography -the concept of lens flare. Lens flare is a distortion – an artefact of imperfection that we love. We love it so much, that 3D animated films simulate lense flare when the camera pans past the sun, to make the resulting scene more realistic.
Most people consume most of their content in a digital manner, but the analogue signal path and the immediacy of workflow that is required to wrangle a physical machine to make an image or a sound certainly leaves its effect on the final product. Modern emulations of analogue synths have come a long way and most of us would not be able to pick the differences in a blind test. For some people however, the subtle and peripheral joys of classic Bob Moog or Dave Smith style circuit designs, are non-negotiable.
Purchasing a vintage synthesiser or even a re-issue, typically involves a serious outlay of cash and it can be hard to know if eBay user synthlord_78 is that same guy who emailed you about needing to borrow your bank account to process his inheritance…
Thankfully, if you live in Perth, there is a fantastic solution for you. The good folk at WAMod have been rujnning a DIY Modular Synth Workshop at the Artifactory for a while now. I got in touch with
Nathan Thompson & Andrew Fitch from WAMod -https://www.facebook.com/WAMod-West-Australian-Modular-S…/…/
…to talk about their workshops and what you can get out of them…
Me: What was it that made you take the leap, from making your own synths, to teaching others to do the same?
Andrew: I started building synths in the late 90s, in those days the DIY synth community was small and full of very helpful people. Two people that helped me a lot in the beginning were Ken Stone and Motohiko Takeda , both are awesome designers and very generous and open with sharing their knowledge. It felt like the arcane art of synth building was being perpetuated and passed along at a grass roots level and I feel it is important to keep the flow going.
Until you actually start to do it, building analogue synths seems like some kind of black art that can only be done by factory robots. In fact, once you pick up a few basics it is quite easy to build synth modules. Of course, designing modules from scratch is a bit more difficult, but nobody needs to do that at the workshops (unless they want to)
I can’t remember how the WAmod workshops started or who 1st suggested it. SKoT suggested we run the workshops at the Artifactory, so they have all been held there and it is a perfect venue for running the synth workshops.
Another reason for the workshops was to get synth geeks together in one room. Synth DIY tends to be a solitary hobby and there are few chances to meet fellow builders. The workshops have enabled the forming of some good friendships and quite a few of the regulars hang out and jam together outside of the workshops.
Finally, we wanted to enable people to get into synths without going into debt. The average synth module costs $200-300 each and a decent modular synth should have at least 10 modules plus a case and a power supply, after taxes and shipping from overseas maybe $4000 worth. At each workshop, a full module kit is usually $40 and nearly everybody goes home with a working mo
dule at the end of each workshop, ready to plug into their system. Nathan supplies cases that have been made on the Artifactory’s laser cutter; these are the cheapest Eurorack cases in the world (no bs).
So after a dozen workshops and an outlay of around $500 you have a functional modular synth, skills to make more modules and some new friends. (think about that – Mike)
Nathan: Making things with your own hands creates a deeper connection with the object, a better understanding of its function and an appreciation for the materials it is made of. Building your own sound making instruments allows you to have full control of the environment you want for your craft. I fucking hate “closed black boxes” that force you to take a particular work flow that someone else decided is the best, plus if it breaks your chances of fixing it is slim.
I stay clear of coding/software, firstly because I suck at it but, mostly because its difficult to actually see what is happening and that surprise events dont happen unless digital parameters allow it to.
Analogue circuits are open systems that are able to respond in realtime without any predefined instruction, for this reason they always offer surprises and WTF moments… That the fun part, trying to control the system but also to play along with it.
For these reasons I hope to help others find the real enjoyment involved with building their own sound devices. Modular synths are the perfect DIY musicians tool which is why they appear in all types of genres, from Punk to Classical, since the 60s. Plus Andrews designs are way cray-cray and are super addictive… Like datura but without the aftertaste.
Me: What skills does someone need to have, in order to get a good experience out of your course and is there any background homework that someone could do, if they wanted to hit the ground running?
Nathan: Newcomers to our workshops are always welcome, we have complete beginners arrive without any soldering experience at all and by the end of the night they leave with a functioning module. It’s easy and after a few evenings they rarely need any guidance. No previous experience or homework is necessary outside of enthusiasm for the hobby.
We …. okay… Nathan teaches new builders how to solder, identify components and put the modules together. Everybody seems to pick it up very quickly once they are shown how and get some practise.
For background, just google ‘synth DIY’ and start reading. A lot of relevant sites have great explanations about how modules work; there are also some great synth forums full of threads focusing on synth building. It is also fascinating to read up on people like Serge Tcherepnin and Don Buchla. If you really want to go deep, get Electronotes. This was a monthly newsletter starting in 1969 that set the standards and core designs for analogue modular synthesis. Any serious synth designer has the full set.
Me: At the end of the season of workshop sessions, how playable would my home made synth be? Would it have a MIDI connection?
Andrew: We have held 16 workshops and built a new module at each one. The workshops are held at the Artifactory on the 2nd Tuesday evening of each month, from February to November. There are about 20 regular builders and another 20 irregulars. The regular builders have all got quite functional synths now; of course some people buy other kits or modules online to expand their systems. We usually have a few module kits from previous workshops available, especially the core modules such as power supplies and VCOs. Once you have been to maybe 4 workshops you should have enough modules to start making a few blip-blop and squashed frog noises. MIDI? No way, bleep that squelch.
Nathan: After 4-5 evenings you will have a functioning synth that you made with your bare hands. Its up to you what it does, or how it is controlled. We have module kits that respond to your voice/guitar/radio for example as well as kits for sending your synth sounds to outboard gear, its truly a wide open playing field that you are free to run around in. As of this month we have 16 different modules to build with a new one each month. If you want MIDI there are plenty of options available online.
Me: Are you aware of any bands that are gigging with a WAMod made synth?
Andrew: I have seen a few people use them at various Noize Maschin nights (monthly noise gig at the Artifactory) and at Crux (Baywater).
Is there anything else that you’d like to add?
Nathan: Come and see real stemcell differenciated brain neurons in a petri dish jam with a live musician via a custom made modular synth behemoth at the Masonic Hall in Crawley(UWA) October 4th…
Me: What the fudge?