The Charm of Synths

Two versions of the Switched-on Bach album cover appeared. The one above was the first one used. Unfortunately, the synthesizer is incorrectly set up. The earphones are plugged into the input. The output isn’t connected to anything, offering silence as the synthesizer’s final product. A second cover, with a standing Bach, corrected these faults.

It is now over fifty years since I first heard a recording of a synthesizer, and became intrigued (but not enthralled) by this rather artificial music production machine, as were many other young people. As is frequently the case, the older generation was more sceptical. Wendy (then Walter) Carlos (1939 – ) performed on and programmed the synthesizer, Benjamin Folkman (? – ) performed on supplementary keyboards, while Rachel Elkind (1939 – ) produced. The album was Switched-on Bach (1968), and referred to ten works of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750) in the public domain.

These pieces were played on a modular Moog synthesizer. The recording process was labour intensive, and necessitated a close cooperation with Robert Moog (1934 – 2005), designer of the instrument. A custom 8-track recording machine was built by Carlos from components. The synthesizer was monophonic, meaning only one note could be played at a time. This meant that each track had to be added individually. Each note had to be released before the next note could start. In addition the synthesizer frequently needed to be tuned, because of tonal drift. The album took approximately five months and about one thousand hours to produce. By 1974 over a million copies of it had been sold.

Why anyone would want to buy an off-the-shelf synthesizer is beyond my comprehension. Synths are ideal DIY projects. Despite this, there are several approaches that can be taken to build one.

YouTube contains a number of sites dedicated to music and electronics. The one I have found most useful is Notes & Volts. Its three basic Arduino videos provide insights that go beyond the introductory tutorials provided by Jeremy Blum: Arduino on a Breadboard; Arduino as ISP; Arduino on a Proto-Board. It also has 9 videos about MIDI for the Arduino. All of these provide insights that extend far beyond the Arduino. There are also several music related projects, including an Arduino Granular Synth and a Teensy Synth. More information about the Teensy Synth is available at Arduino Slovakia. Teensy is a development board made in Sherwood, Oregon. The latest version, 4.0 uses an ARM Cortex-M7 processor at 600 MHz. However, the Notes & Volts synth specifies version 3.2 using a much less powerful ARM Cortex-M4 processor at 72 MHz.

Another approach is to find a kit, buy it and build it, slavishly following provided instructions. Elektor is probably the best place to look. It is a bi-monthly electronics magazine first published in Dutch in 1960, and in English since 1975, renamed ElektorLabs magazine in 2019. It offers a wide range of electronic projects, background articles and targets engineers as well as enthusiasts. Synthesizers are just one area of many, where PCBs, kits and modules are available. Microcontroller based projects have downloadable source code and (sometimes) executable files available free of charge from their website, along with PCB and other artwork.

People who regard assembly of an IKEA flatpack, as DIY, will be pleased to hear that Eurorack is the flatpack standard for modular synths. The format was originally specified in 1996 by Doepfer Musikelektronik. There are two basic technical specifications that have to be met:

The starting point for constructing a Eurorack is usually a case and power supply. DIY cheaters, will be able to buy these either separately, or together. The electrical specifications require the use of a red stripe to mark the -12V supply on each module’s power cable, and include keyed connectors which physically prevent modules from being plugged in incorrectly. 3.5 mm monojacks are used to connect

Purists will then populate their rack with modules containing sources and processors.

Sources – characterized by an output, but no signal input; it may have control inputs:

  • VCO – Voltage-controlled oscillator, a continuous voltage source, with an output signal that may be a simple or dynamically modified waveform.
  • Noise source – A random voltage output typically providing white, pink and/ or low frequency noise.
  • LFO – A low-frequency oscillator, optionally voltage-controlled. Typically used as a control voltage for another module.
  • EG – An envelope generator is a transient voltage source, typically configured as ADSR (Attack, Decay, Sustain, Release) to control the amplitude of a VCA.
  • Sequencer, aka Analog Step Sequencer, may act as a source or a processor.

Processors – characterized by a signal input and an output; it may have control inputs:

  • VCF – Voltage-controlled filter, attenuates = lessens frequencies below (high-pass), above (low-pass) or both below and above (band-pass) or between (band-reject = notch) certain frequency. Typically with variable resonance, sometimes voltage-controlled.
  • VCA – Voltage-controlled amplifier, typically a unity-gain amplifier which varies the amplitude of a signal in response to an applied control voltage, with a linear or exponential response curve.
  • LPG – Low pass gate using a resistive opto-isolator to respond to the control voltage.
  • RM – Ring modulator where two audio inputs create sum and difference frequencie but suppress original signals.
  • Mixer – A module that adds voltages.
  • Slew limiter – Sub-audio lowpass filter.
  • S&H – Sample and hold, typically used as a control-voltage processor.
  • Sequencer- (see above).

To populate their rack appropriately, the ModularGrid database can be used to find suitable modules. As this is being written in 2019-10, there are 8 525 Eurorack modules to choose from, that have populated 224 551 racks in the Eurorack universe.

The advantage of a modular synth is that it can be whatever one wants it to be. The user is the designer. It is relatively easy to customize. It also allows the user to start off small, and to expand gradually. This has a second advantage. It takes time to learn how to use gear. One can start off by reading the manual, but then one has to experiment. Patching = connecting with 3.5 mm monojack cables, is part of this process. If a module turns out to be of limited use, it can be sold – or even traded.

The Charm of Keyboards

Sequential Circuits Prophet-5, the original programmable polyphonic synthesizer, and the spiritual ancestor of every polyphonic keyboard synthesizer produced today. Photo: sequential.com

Pianists are typically dependent on the venues where they play, to provide them with an appropriate instrument. Without a team of roadies, it just isn’t practical to load a piano onto the back of a tour bus, and offload it for every concert/ gig. Other musicians may have instruments with considerably lower mass. A piccolo weighs in at about 160 g, a flute is generally less than a kilo, a trumpet just slightly more. Even a tuba has a mass of 20 kg or less. An upright piano weighs about 200 kg, and a grand piano may reach 500 kg, or more.

The pianoforte was invented by Bartolomeo Cristofori (1655 – 1731) about 1700. This early instrument is a vastly different from the one in use today, which is a distinctive product of the industrial revolution. Not only does the modern version offer a larger tonal range, its treble register is enriched by using a three string choir. Wire strings mounted onto an iron frame, precision cast to withstand the tremendous tension of these strings, also offer the opportunity to vary loudness. Accessibility to the piano was enhanced with the invention of an upright piano in 1826 by Robert Wornum (1780 – 1852).

Is the acoustic piano still fit for purpose in the 21st-century? Opinions are mixed.

Enter the keyboard. Even one that is relatively massive, such as the Yamaha MX88 with its 88 full-sized, touch-sensitive keys, weighs in with a mass of less than 15 kg. It is a lightweight and portable synthesizer, augmented with over 1 000 voices from a sound engine that can mimic strings, woodwinds, brass and even pianos! Many professional users complain that it doesn’t work well as a synthetic pipe-organ, in part because it lacks drawbars, and features a piano oriented keybed. Keybed refers to the keys of a keyboard and their underlying mechanisms.

I am imagining my mail box filling with an infinite number of virtual complaints from irritated Scandinavians for my failure to prioritize their regional favourite, the Swedish Clavia Nord. To make amends, I will not mention other Japanese brands such as Casio, Korg or Roland that make impressive keyboards, but focus all my energies for the rest of this paragraph to describe a Nord Electro 6. Yes, it weighs less than the Yamaha. Yes, it has fewer keys (73 or 61), but the keybeds are available in two flavours, hammer action for pianists, and weighted waterfall for organists. Yes, it can imitate 1960’s transistor organs, Vox Continental and Farfisa Compact. Yes, it is available in an attractive red. It also costs over twice the price (over NOK 20 000), compared to a Yamaha (less than NOK 10 000).

Stop! I’ve tried to illustrate by example, a major problem with many equipment reviews. They attempt to compare two (or sometimes even three or more) products, and are far too taken up with the specific qualities of some market leaders, rather than looking at the principles that will help a person decide what sort of product they need.

It is important to understand the intended purpose of a keyboard. There are different qualities of keyboards for different purposes. A synthesizer is a keyboard that produces sounds, without additional equipment, although some may need amplifiers and/ or speakers. A keyboard synth is especially useful for musicians interested in practising and performing. It is something that will fit in any practice room as well as any performance venue. Most use sample-based synthesis, using pre-recorded sounds. The Yamaha MX88 is an example of such an instrument. In contrast, the Nord Electro 6 is – at least in part – an analogue synth that manipulate electrical signals to create sounds. The number of keys on these instruments can vary, but with 49, 61 and 88 being three standard offerings.

For composing and recording, a music workstation is an upscale device from a synth, that can be more appropriate for recording work because it incorporates more hardware and software. It is also more difficult to use. It is essentially a computer in disguise. The most important additions involve onboard storage, such as hard disk drives or SD card slots capable of preserving multi-track recordings of performances. They typically include a touch-screen display. Connectivity to and from other devices is also important. Perhaps the most important music workstation was the Open Labs Production Station, introduced in 2003. Unfortunately, Open Labs went out of business in 2010. Many music workstations use custom operating systems built on top of the Linux kernel. Less sophisticated, but more portable models, are often referred to as arranger keyboards.

Digital pianos differ from the above instruments in that they only try to fake one instrument – an acoustic piano. Typically, they use weighted keybeds or hammer action to realistically simulate the feel of an acoustic piano. Their embedded sound clips are most often sourced from acoustic pianos, with realistic sustain and decay programmed in. Most digital pianos have 88 keys. Amplifiers and speakers may be separate, or built into console units designed for residential use.

Most modern electric organs today use sample based sound synthesis, but incorporate drawbars and modulation wheels to modify sounds.

If, at this point, I were asked which of these I would prefer, my honest answer would have to be – none of the above. My interest in a keyboard is limited to having a MIDI controller, a device that generates and transmits Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) data to other MIDI-enabled devices that will ultimately play some form of electronic music, when attached to appropriate amplifiers and speakers/ headphones.

MIDI controllers come in various of forms including drum pads and other control surfaces, samplers, sequences and other units with knobs and/ or sliders, as well as keyboards. There are even wind (read: breath) control units. This means that I want a synthesizer separate from the keyboard. Potentially, it could be inside a computer, but even here there is a need for flexibility.

Keyboard MIDI controllers vary in the numbers of keys offered (from 25 to 88) and response characteristics. They can be velocity-sensitive – where they respond to the speed at which they are pressed; varying degrees of weighting for varying degrees of piano like realism; with or without aftertouch, to assign additional parameters including vibrato or filter sweeps. The most impressive characteristic of a keyboard MIDI controller is its cost, typically from less than NOK 1 000 to 3 000.

The MIDI communication protocol avoids sounds, but encrypts parameters that specify sound characteristics so that a hardware or software instrument can decrypt them and play a sequence of sounds. In 2019-01 a new MIDI 2.0 was announced, updating MIDI with auto-configuration, new DAW/web integrations, extended resolution, increased expressiveness and tighter timing. It is backward compatible with previous versions of MIDI, preserving the interoperability of older devices.

There are two other devices that should be mentioned in conjunction with keyboards. A sequencer is a device that records MIDI data and plays it in a user-programmed sequence. It is in essence a 21st-century player piano. A sampler records live sounds digitally to produce audio clips. These clips can be manipulated in various ways. Some keyboards incorporate sequencing and or sampling capabilities, usually implemented using a combination of hardware and software.

An alternative approach to the use of a keyboard synthesizer or a music workstation, is to use a Eurorack modular synthesizer. Its format was originally specified in 1996 by Doepfer Musikelektronik. Currently, it is the dominant hardware modular synthesizer format. There are over 5000 modules available from more than 270 manufacturers.

Once the category of keyboard has been determined, it is then possible to specify the characteristics of its components. Here are some, in order of importance.

Connectivity: Keyboards can connect to computers (and other devices) physically for the transfer of data in a variety of ways. There are FireWire, MIDI, mLAN and S/PDIF and many other types of interfaces that will work. However, a guiding principle should be to avoid these and other legacy connectors, and stick to USB ports, where these are available. Analogue signals are another matter, XLR connectors, 6.35 mm (1/4″) TRS audio jacks and 3.5 mm TRS minijacks are all commonly used. 3.5 mm monojacks are also used to connect to Eurorack synthesizers. Digital audio can be combined with video using HDML connectors.

Number of keys: They vary from 25 to 88. Reasons for opting for less than 88 include space restrictions and musical genre. Personally, I am considering 61 keys, but will be making a mockup of both it, and a 49 key unit, to ensure it will fit onto the height adjustable desk that I will be using.

Keybed action: There are four main choices. Weighted, semi-weighted, hammer and synth. Weighted and semi-weighted offer varying degrees of resistance. Hammer action approaches the feel of an acoustic piano, with mechanical hammers. Synth action could be more properly called no action, because of its lack of resistance. Personally, I would want something in the middle (weighted or semi-weighted), rather than something more extreme.

Key sensitivity refers to the ability of a key to sense the force/ speed of a key and to either to create a sound or send an appropriate MIDI message.

To understand voicing, polyphony and timbrality it is necessary to look at some theory, along with recent technological history. Voice is used in two distinct ways. In the second paragraph, the Yamaha MX88 was described as having 1 000 voices. That is, 1 000 descriptions of how a sound potentially can be played involving an oscillator, amplifier and assorted filters. When the time comes to actually play a note, a specific voice will be selected. A monophonic instrument is one that can only play one note at a time. It cannot play chords. Most woodwinds and brass instruments are monophonic. During the 1960’s and 1970’s almost all synthesizers were also monophonic.

A polyphonic instrument allows many notes to be played simultaneously allowing the possibility of playing chords. A piano is an example of a polyphonic instrument. The Sequential Circuits Prophet-5, an analogue synthesizer manufactured between 1978 and 1984, was the first fully programmable polyphonic synthesizer and the first musical instrument with an embedded microprocessor. Now, most synthesizers are polyphonic, producing between 8 and 128 note polyphony.

Timbrality refers to the ability of a keyboard to play notes on different channels simultaneously. A mono-timbral instrument produces one sound on a single channel. A multi-timbral instrument can produce sounds on multiple channels. For example, one channel might imitate a piano, a second channel a guitar, a third channel a bass and a fourth channel a flute, etc.

Arpeggiator: An arpeggio is a chord whose notes are played successively, rather than simultaneously. An arpeggiator electronically creates an arpeggio when a single note is played on the keyboard.

Since I am not a musician, I cannot justify the expense of an expensive keyboard. When called onto the financial director’s carpet to justify a keyboard purchase, at some time in the future, I will have to explain why I need yet another, relatively expensive input device. Fortunately, she is used to my imaginative stories. I will try to divert attention away from the purchase price, to the cost saving of not buying a Nord Electro 6.

Here is my short list of MIDI keyboards with prices in NOK (Norwegian kroner). The quick, but not particularly precise, way to convert NOK to USD is to divide these prices by 10.

BrandModel49 keys61 keys
SamsonCarbon 9501 550
M-AudioKeystation1 0001 450
Native InstrumentsKomplete Kontrol MKIII1 7002 150

The MIDI keyboard will be used to input data to LMMS, an open source digital audio workstation application program on an Asus VivoMini. Output will be through a headphone connected to the computer using a 3.5 mm TRS minijack.

Note: In writing this post, I thought very often of my friend, Olaf Olafsson, former Moscrop junior secondary school (Burnaby) language teacher and resident of New Westminster, who retired to Squamish, where he became an avid keyboardist.

Wes Honeywell & the Thermostats

Photo by Moja Msanii on Unsplash

Somewhere, in a parallel universe, Wes Honeywell is growing impatient with his current band, Damper-Flapper, led by his old friend Al Butz. There are several problems with Damper-Flapper.

First, most of the sidemen (yes, they are all men), have different motivations. One actually enjoys playing music, a second uses his performance as a magnet for attracting women, a third person meets for his mental health, while the last member attends for the money. The sociopathic bandleader/ music director/ songwriter is solely interested in the band as a means of controlling people.

Second, they can’t agree on a genre. It is an unhealthy combination of blues, country, electro-pop, jazz, industrial rock and surf. They refer to it as fusion, but everyone else calls it noise.

Third, with an average age north of 70, it is becoming harder for band members to remember details like lyrics and chord changes. It is not even possible to introduce new songs, because everyone is stuck in his own personal rut. Illness, both real and fake, is taking its toll at band practice.

Since harmony is not a term that can be applied to Damper-Flapper, Wes has decided to spend less time interacting with this mash and clash of humanity and to spend more time working alone as a musician.

Computers are not high priority for Wes. Fortunately, he knows people who know things, and one of these people in Proton Bletchley. Proton was able to tell Wes, that the heart of every 21st century one-person-band (yes, this applies to the other gender too), is a digital audio workstation (DAW). While laptops are portable, desktop or even rack based machines are preferred. In general, they are faster, run cooler (using less energy and producing less noise), offer greater flexibility such as more RAM, additional drives, and space for better graphic cards (if video is being contemplated).

Wes needs a lot of tracks. His father was a jazz pianist, and played nothing else, but Wes converted early in life to blues. He can perform: (1) lead vocals, (2) backing vocals, (3) lead guitar, (4) rhythm guitar, (5) bass guitar, (6) keyboard, (7) drums, including (8) congas, and (9) saxophone.

Each of these can be laid down as a separate track, while Wes listens to one or more of the tracks that have been laid down previously. The average number of times Wes needs to lay down a track varies with his skill with the instrument: once for congas; fourteen for saxophone, and counting.

The main recording challenge is noise, which may mean that any computer has to be physically separated from studio (a fancy name for Wes’ spare bedroom) pickups and microphones. This is not quite as acute a problem now as it was before, since some fanless (almost silent) computers are able to do vast amounts of processing, compared to earlier machines.

Other hardware considerations had to be taken, but only after some software decisions have been made. One of the first was about which operating system to use, Apple MacOS or Windows? Proton’s standard answer is neither, use Linux. This is because of his support of the Open Source movement.

While Proton is a confirmed open source advocate, he is also a hypocrite. He spends his days extolling the virtues of Open Source software, forgetting some of the serious issues that come with them: the lack of professionalism in Open Source communities, which result in inappropriate products; the lack of resources, financial and otherwise; there are also issues caused by commercial licensing restrictions.

The most notable open source audio products are: Ardour, a hard disk recorder and digital audio workstation application; Audacity, a sound editor more than a digital audio workstation; LMMS (in a previous life, Linux MultiMedia Studio), another digital audio workstation application.

These programs are probably good enough for most musicians. Yet, there can be a temptation to use commercial products, that could be slightly more refined.

This said, Proton discourages people from using Software as a Service. Adobe Audition, for example, now requires people to edit their music in the cloud. That is, the music is stored and manipulated on somebody else’s server. This means that users effectively lose control over their creations and are dependent on Adobe behaving ethically.

At the very least, software should be installed on one’s own machine, with backup in some physically separate place.

If one is going to use commercial software, Chris Barnatt, futurist, author and YouTuber at Explaining Computers, recommends DaVinci Resolve for video (and audio) editing. The free version, is more than good enough for a one person band. More information is available at Black Magic Design.

Wes has downloaded all of the above, and is testing them out to find out which one feels good, for him.

The Charm of Guitar Amplifiers

An electric-guitar store, at some unspecified location, somewhere in the world. Photo: Visitor 7

An electric guitar is an analog sound generator. The difference between an acoustic and an electric guitar is that the first uses a hollow, usually wooden box to amplify the sound, while an electric guitar needs to connect to another box filled with electronic components, generally referred to as an amp.

Any guitar amp here, will be judged solely on its ability to serve three areas where a guitarist needs an amp: 1) to practice, 2) to perform and 3) to record.

In this weblog post, two tribes of people will be encountered: musicians, more specifically members of the Guitarist clan and DIY hobbyists. Guitarists will be quickly dispatched. They know the type, size and brand of amp they want, typically a combo-amp that contains an amplifier and one or more speakers in a single cabinet. Many guitarists consider 40 Watts an appropriate size, although larger and smaller sizes are available. Jazz guitarists may opt for a Roland Jazz Chorus JC-40, rock guitarists for a Fender Hot Rod Deluxe 40. Satisfying their needs is very simple, involving three steps. They must:

  1. Order an appropriate amp online.
  2. Wait patiently by door with guitar, until delivery person arrives.
  3. Unbox amp, plug in guitar (and electricity) and play.

The DIY tribe is not a big, friendly group. In fact, it may have as many people with psychological labels, as musicians. It is divided into at least three clans: cloners, tweakers and circuit benders. Yet, these clans have much in common. DIY tribespeople are difficult to satisfy. They are interested not in playing, but just in the process of building an amplifier. Once it is built, that is the end of their project. A cable may never actually be plugged into the amp. Beyond testing, the amp will probably never be turned on. It will join all those other barely finished, half-finished and barely started projects collecting dust/ rusting/ otherwise decaying in assorted areas of the house/ garage/ or great outdoors. In an effort to avoid collecting more junk, the DIYist may, in desperation, seek out a guitarist, upon whom he (yes, this type of person is almost always male) will bestow his creation.

Cloner clan

Cloners are DIY types who copy a preexisting design from a commercial manufacturer, often involving reverse engineering or the use of circuit schematic diagrams and/or printed circuit board (PCB) layouts. The legality of such a process never enters the mind of a cloner. The results of their labours are seldom for sale, and do not attract the attention of manufacturers. Clones are never perfect copies, since there may be obstacles involved in accessing specialty parts or undertaking mechanically construction. However, the circuit or other distinguishing features should be close to the original.

People recreate an existing design (i.e. clone) for many reasons. The design might be historically important but out of production. so the only way to obtain the component is to build it. Other considerations may relate to costs, sentimentality or skill development. A copy may be built to test design concepts or principles.

In 2019, a cloner will probably build a chip amp, possibly a Gainclone, the most commonly built and well-known amplifier project among hobbyists. It is simple to build and involves only a few readily accessible, inexpensive parts.

The Gainclone is based on a 1999, 47 Labs Gaincard amplifier, an unconventional design with fewer parts, less capacitance and simpler construction than most amplifiers preceding it. It used a 56-watt chip, the National Semiconductor LM3875. This construction breached accepted wisdom, which favored large power supplies and discrete components. The DIY community started building replicas or clones of the Gaincard, which soon became known as Gainclones. Today, chip amp or chipamp is used rather than Gainclone, to describe IC amplifiers made by amateurs.

Tweaker clan

Tweaker clan members spend their time replacing mass market components. The tweaker I remember best did not make amplifies as such, but electronic organs. His starting point was a cheap consumer brand organ (Hammond?). He replaced each and every resister on it with one that was within a fraction of a percent of the ideal value that he had calculated. He had a large business in the Vancouver area, revitalizing church organs. The replacement of cheap/ inferior mass market audio components with high quality substitutes is the modus operandi of the Tweaker clan. Other audio components commonly replaced include capacitors (recap) and operational amplifiers. Op-amps provide power. Since most op-amps have the same pinouts, they can easily be replaced with higher specification components.

Circuit bending clan

The Circuit bending clan is interested in the creative customization of circuits. In the 1950s and 1960s it existed as the Kit building clan, with the Heathkit sept being a large and powerful force, until it suddenly disappeared without a trace. More modern clan members use conventional electronics to experiment. They dismantle machines, adding and sometimes subtracting components such as switches and potentiometers. Members of this clan value noise as much as music, unfortunately.

More recently, additional septs have emerged in the circuit bending clan, focused on microcontrollers. The Arduino and Raspberry Pi septs are currently the two largest, but the ESP32 and Micro:bit septs are increasing their presence.

Physiology

While the human ear is a marvelous piece of biological engineering, it is far from ideal. The frequency range of hearing is limited, as is its ability to perceive sound pressure. Low dB sounds go unheard, while high dB sounds can permanently damage delicate biological machinery. Hearing ability decreases with age and with exposure to loud sounds, such as rock and roll played at 100 dB, evening after evening. As living creatures, natural selection has favoured some characteristics over others, so that surviving humans are often those who are able to make the most judicious compromises.

Overselling audio

The High Fidelity Society (HFS) will be used as a pseudonym for a business enterprise that sells audio receiving equipment with characteristics that far exceed human hearing capabilities. Yes, I have at one time been the target of a HFS seller who attempted to insult me into purchasing audio equipment I didn’t want or need. Such purveyors use an assortment of unconscionable tactics as a sales strategy. If a dynamic range of 20 to 20 000 Hz is good, then 10 to 30 000 Hz must be better, and 5 to 40 000 best of all. They pretend they can hear the difference. They can’t. Biology puts limits on what people can sense. The commonly stated range of human hearing is 20 Hz to 20 kHz, but sometimes the lower range limit stated is above 30 Hz, and the upper range limit may be 19 or even 17.5 kHz.

Working back from the ear, there is a chain of components that shape sound from an electric guitar: vibrating air set in motion by one or more loudspeakers, optionally, a cable to a power amplifier that produces a high current signal to drive each loudspeaker, that at a most basic level are operated with control knobs including vertical faders to control multiple frequency bands, a real or virtual pre-amp with real or virtual controls that modify tone-shaping electrical circuits or software equivalents, a cable between the guitar and the amplifier potentially eliminated by some form of wireless technology, on the guitar itself – up to multiple pickups, possibly a vibrato bar/ unit, usually volume and tone knobs, any number of strings, a pick held by a human, hopefully with fingers.

Sometimes life may not be so simple. Between the preamp and power amp stages there may be an effects loop or some dedicated amplifier tone circuits. Pre-amps may be stacked into multiple stages (gain stages) which may provide feedback loops from a post-preamp signal to an earlier pre-preamp signal.

Guitars may have passive tone controls, active equalizer circuits in built-in preamps, pickup selector switches and more. There may be other devices between the guitar and the preamp, such as a pedal or other effects.

As one progresses back over from component to component, it is important to know what can be sensed or measured and what can be ignored. At some point one will have to learn something about the propagation of sound. It will be especially important to learn how to make electronic effects: equalization, compression, distortion, chorus, reverberation and more.

Tube vs Solid-state

When a guitarist is dependent on a single tube-based combo-amp, extra tubes had better be taken to every gig. While nobody will notice if a stack or two out of a hundred or more fail to operate become some roadie didn’t pamper it sufficiently and caused a delicate tube to fail, they will notice if a vacuum tube combo-amp fails!

Risking the wrath of one of my closest relatives, I will suggest that using a tube based amplifier, is equivalent to using a cathode ray tube (CRT) based television. There was a time in the previous century when such a choice was justified, but that ended many years ago.

Technological advancements have made low-wattage solid-state amplifiers viable. These are less expensive to build and maintain, reduce the weight and heat, are more reliable and shock-resistant. High-end solid-state amplifiers are uncommon, because many professional guitarists still favor vacuum tubes. Some jazz guitarists are part of a minority that favor the cleaner sound of solid-state amplifiers. The Roland Jazz Chorus, is possibly the best known high-end solid-state amplifier.

Modeling Amplifiers

Modelling amplifiers use microprocessors and software to create digital effects. These can be programmed using a USB or equivalent connection with a desktop computer or laptop, and potentially a tablet or cell-phone.

A modeling amp with plugs for a guitar, a generic pedal, a microphone or two can imitate specific amplifiers (real or imaginary), that can provide an infinitely large number of sounds and tones, of which some might actually be desirable. This ability to simulate specific characteristics comes in a package weighing less than 1 kg (2 pounds).

The secret is to construct a full range, flat response (FRFR) amplification system as the output unit of the modeling amplifier. Guitar input is processed using software based sound processors in the signal chain before the amplifier. This allow guitarists to use PA systems and powered speakers without worrying about their sound being coloured by the amplification process.

The approach is to digitize the input signal and use digital signal processing (DSP) with a dedicated microprocessor. This is an inexpensive and compact device. A dedicated standalone modeler can be connected directly to a recording device or PA system without having to use a power amplifier, speaker cabinet or microphone

Modeling amps include the Peavey Vypyr, Deplike, Roland Cube, Fender Mustang, and Line 6 Spider series. Many DIYers will attempt to clone these using schematic diagrams and other materials intended for service and repair.

Fender Limited-Edition Hot Rod Deluxe IV 40W 1×12 Tube Combo Amp Lacquered Tweed An amplifier suitable for a musician. Photo: Fender

Hot Dog 40 Digital Guitar Combo Amp Specification

Model name: Hot Dog 40
Amplifier Type: Digital
Speaker: One - 12 inch (300 mm) speaker
Inputs: One - 1/4 inch input, 3.5 mm AUX input
Outputs: USB Recording Output, 3.5 mm Headphone Output
Channels: One
Controls:  To be determined
Effects:  To be determined
Wattage:  40 Watts
Cabinet Material: 5/8 inch (16 mm) plywood
Covering: To be determined
Grille Cloth: To be determined
Handle: Integrated Top-Mount Handle
Controls: Plastic knobs, computer control
Other Features: Digital Chromatic Tuner, Bluetooth Audio Streaming, WIFI
Footswitch: Generic 
Dimensions (HxWxD): 16 x 16 x 8 inches (400 x 400 x 200 mm)
Design Weight: < 22 lbs (10 kg)

DIY Sources

https://www.diyaudio.com/

https://www.diyaudioprojects.com/

http://www.diyhifi.org/forums/

Music to the Masses

Imitation

In a distant galaxy, on another planet, a reader with the pseudonym Viking had written, “Interesting! I want to know more! I need an How to become an Audiophile-guide, telling me which gear to use to achieve the greatest sound for the cheapest buck!”

Viking was responding to The Real Differences Between 16-Bit and 24-Bit Audio by Wesley Fenlon on 2011-03-03 at 8:00, Located on that parallel planet’s Internet: https://www.tested.com/tech/1905-the-real-differences-between-16-bit-and-24-bit-audio/

For just a moment, I imagined myself becoming an Amazon Affiliate, then writing such a guide with links to the site’s most expensive products. Yes, I read that bit about cheapest, too, but nothing beats price, especially if commissions are tied to it. Once the reader has acquired the book, and purchased the equipment, it will be too late – at least for him (or her).

Of course, this will simply be the first of many books on innumerable subjects. How to become a lead guitarist, … rhythm guitarist, … bass guitarist, … keyboardist or … drummer spring instantly to mind. Even, How to become a singer. Singing is so much more than just another pretty voice. It is condenser microphone, xlr cable, pre-amp, amplifier, speaker -wait, no not a single speaker, but a stack, no, a wall of speakers.

There is just one little problem with this approach. If the aim of the exercise is to make music that people will actually listen to, then there has to be another input factor other than raw cash – talent. Even listening to music appreciatively, requires talent – an ability to listen.

A knowledgeable and experienced recording engineer can’t make anything valuable out of noise. Garbage/ rubbish/ trash/ detritus in, garbage/ rubbish/ trash/ detritus out.

There has to be talent at every step of the music production chain. If Amazon and Apple are to be prevented from obtaining/ retaining a musical monopoly, then ordinary people are going to have to devote their time and energies freely to make this happen. They are going to have to become part of a production chain that is independent of Amazon and Apple, and Fender, Marshall, Roland and Yamaha.

Previously, I have mentioned Project Retrograde. See: https://brock.mclellan.no/2018/07/01/retrograde/ . One focus of this project is the encouragement of people to make digital instances of their own art (literature, music, painting, photography and more) freely available. The works I am talking about are not those performed by The Rolling Stones or Sixto Rodriguez, but by more anonymous groups, such as Skylane (See: https://skylaneofficial.bandcamp.com ) or Wes Honeywell and the Thermostats. For example, digital copies of the art works by Billi Sodd are available to subscribers of this weblog.

Previously, I have mentioned that I want to put some of my energies into the production of musical instruments using modern technology, such as CNC machining. See: https://brock.mclellan.no/2018/07/03/a-copy-of-a-copy/ While this is still true, I would like to encourage this type of work on a broader basis. In particular, musicians need to be encouraged to design and make their own instruments, or to find local people who can make them.

Inspiration

Experimental Musical Instruments was a magazine that appeared in 70 issues between 1985 and 1999. It was edited and published by Bart Hopkin. Much of the material published is still available at his website: http://barthopkin.com/

Another site of interest is: http://www.oddmusic.com

In 1981, Maurice Fleuret (1932-1990) became Director of Music and Dance at the French Ministry of Culture. According to myth, he reflected on musical practice and its evolution: “the music everywhere and the concert nowhere”. He discovered that half the young people played a musical instrument. Since 1982, the Fête de la Musique has become an international phenomenon, celebrated annually on the Summer Solstice (June 21st) in more than 700 cities in 120 countries.

Further information, along with an opportunity to practice your French, is available here: https://fetedelamusique.culture.gouv.fr/

Innovation

With the Spring Equinox fast approaching (March 21st), there is slightly more than 3 months for readers of this weblog post to prepare themselves for the next Fête de la Musique. It is just enough time for the musicians among us, to compose some music, write some lyrics, and to prepare for a free public performance. It is probably not enough time for luthiers and other instrument makers to have equipment ready, so they might want to focus on completing instruments during the upcoming winter, so that they would be ready for musicians at Spring Equinox 2020.

Forget cars, Détroit is the World Capital of Music


A Copy of a Copy

Soon it will be time to end my surfing career, and I have been wondering what to replace it with.

Earlier, on Sunday (2018-07-01), I had read an article in The Independent about Deep Purple and their compelling song Smoke on the Water, which appears to reference the burning down of a casino at Montreux in 1971:  https://www.independent.co.uk/news/long_reads/deep-purple-montreux-jazz-festival-lake-geneva-1971-a8418926.html

Later, that day I was into YouTube, and in addition to the usual mix of woodworking and computing videos, the second on the list of recommended videos was Rolling Stones time! Riffing on Gimme Shelter with my Bacchus BST-650, by Laura Cox. It had over 300 000 views, and was made 2018-05-26: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zy09E1HC7lE

Unlike many people with tinnitus, I restrict the amount of music I listen to. My normal music consumption is somewhere around one track/ song a week.

However, working on Project Retrograde at the time, I wondered why this particular video was included so high up on my recommendation list. My thoughts were, I was reading about another famous guitar riff earlier. Google knows this. Both Google and YouTube are part of Alphabet. Then I wondered, why not the original version? Does their algorithm conclude that I would prefer a cover version by an unknown woman, to the original by a famous rock band?

YouTube’s placement of the video worked. I decided that this 2-minute long video would be the one track I would listen to on Canada Day – and probably the only one for another week. I did play it, but what fascinated me was the guitar. It looked like a Fender Stratocaster. A little searching through the surface web and I  discovered that Bacchus guitars are made in Japan by the Deviser Custom Shop. They are generally well made copies of famous brand names. They are handmade without using CNC equipment.

A Bacchus BST-650 copy of a Fender Stratocaster guitar, in Fiesta Red. (Photo: Deviser)

In an instant, the framework of a new project started to appear, but one that would only begin after: 1)  the house was remodeled, 2) its furniture constructed, 3) the DIY CNC machine completed and 4) the electrically powered, jet surfboard made. Only then would I manufacture an electric guitar, using CNC equipment. No, probably not a Fender Stratocaster copy, but a bespoke design. One can only go so far in copying the works of someone else.

As for the amplifier and speaker system, one source of inspiration is Notes & Volts – Electronics, Guitars & Geekery: https://www.youtube.com/user/NotesAndVolts/videos?disable_polymer=1

The task after that would be to learn to play it!

Ranked Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Snubs

Thank you, Alexis Petridis. You have saved me thousands of hours of listening to Rock & Roll and presented me (and everyone) with a ranked list of musicians. The real thing can be found here: https://www.theguardian.com/music/2018/apr/19/what-no-whitney-the-biggest-rock-roll-hall-of-fame-snubs-ever-ranked

Kraftwerk (Photo: Shinko Music)

Since the quantity of music I listen to can be measured in minutes per year, it could take many months for me to hear all of these 20 (or 27) musicians. A few months ago, I actually binge listened to a YouTube collection of 1960s popular music. Never again. It took close to two weeks for my tinnitus to recover.

The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is located in Cleveland. Rather than wasting time finding out more about it, you would be better off learning something about Ahmet Ertegun, and why he was a pivotal figure in American music. Yes, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame will be tied in. Here is a good place to start: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ahmet_Ertegun

20. Björk

19. Lee “Scratch” Perry

18. Suicide

17. Larry Williams

16. Black Flag (Also mentioned: Minor Threat, Dead Kennedys)

15. Derrick May

14. Roberta Flack

13. Love

12. Depeche Mode (Also mentioned: The Cure)

11. Eric Be & Rakim

10. Whitney Houston

9. The New York Dolls

8. Kate Bush

7. Captain Beefheart

6. Iron Maiden (Also mentioned: Judas Priest)

5. Johnny Burnette

4. Gil Scott-Heron

3. Gram Parsons

2. Kraftwerk (Also mentioned: Can, Neu! Trans-Europe Express)

1. Chic

Full disclosure: Cleveland shares the same lake, Erie, with notable other locations, including Essex County, Ontario. Cleveland has a soft spot in my heart. I visited it from Christmas 1967 to New Year’s day 1968, attending a convention of the Student Christian Movement. Ohio was the second US state I ever visited. (Washington was the first, located less than half-an hour driving from my childhood house.) For those interested in the minutiae of my life in the subsequent fifty years I have visited two additional US states, Oregon, also in 1968 and California, in 2015.

Confession: I am aware of listening to the following on the list: Björk, Black Flag, Roberta Flack, Depeche Mode, Whitney Houston, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Kraftwerk, Can, Neu! and Trans-Europe Express. Neither Roberta Flack nor Whitney Houston have made in onto my personal Top 1 000 list of favourite musicians.

Bob Dylan’s banquet speech, 2016-12-10

Are Bob Dylan’s songs literature? An answer to that question is provided in the banquet speech written by Bob Dylan but given by the United States Ambassador to Sweden, Azita Raji, at the Nobel Banquet, 2016-12-10.

Good evening, everyone. I extend my warmest greetings to the members of the Swedish Academy and to all of the other distinguished guests in attendance tonight.

I’m sorry I can’t be with you in person, but please know that I am most definitely with you in spirit and honored to be receiving such a prestigious prize. Being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature is something I never could have imagined or seen coming. From an early age, I’ve been familiar with and reading and absorbing the works of those who were deemed worthy of such a distinction: Kipling, Shaw, Thomas Mann, Pearl Buck, Albert Camus, Hemingway. These giants of literature whose works are taught in the schoolroom, housed in libraries around the world and spoken of in reverent tones have always made a deep impression. That I now join the names on such a list is truly beyond words.

I don’t know if these men and women ever thought of the Nobel honor for themselves, but I suppose that anyone writing a book, or a poem, or a play anywhere in the world might harbor that secret dream deep down inside. It’s probably buried so deep that they don’t even know it’s there.

If someone had ever told me that I had the slightest chance of winning the Nobel Prize, I would have to think that I’d have about the same odds as standing on the moon. In fact, during the year I was born and for a few years after, there wasn’t anyone in the world who was considered good enough to win this Nobel Prize. So, I recognize that I am in very rare company, to say the least.

I was out on the road when I received this surprising news, and it took me more than a few minutes to properly process it. I began to think about William Shakespeare, the great literary figure. I would reckon he thought of himself as a dramatist. The thought that he was writing literature couldn’t have entered his head. His words were written for the stage. Meant to be spoken not read. When he was writing Hamlet, I’m sure he was thinking about a lot of different things: “Who’re the right actors for these roles?” “How should this be staged?” “Do I really want to set this in Denmark?” His creative vision and ambitions were no doubt at the forefront of his mind, but there were also more mundane matters to consider and deal with. “Is the financing in place?” “Are there enough good seats for my patrons?” “Where am I going to get a human skull?” I would bet that the farthest thing from Shakespeare’s mind was the question “Is this literature?”

When I started writing songs as a teenager, and even as I started to achieve some renown for my abilities, my aspirations for these songs only went so far. I thought they could be heard in coffee houses or bars, maybe later in places like Carnegie Hall, the London Palladium. If I was really dreaming big, maybe I could imagine getting to make a record and then hearing my songs on the radio. That was really the big prize in my mind. Making records and hearing your songs on the radio meant that you were reaching a big audience and that you might get to keep doing what you had set out to do.

Well, I’ve been doing what I set out to do for a long time, now. I’ve made dozens of records and played thousands of concerts all around the world. But it’s my songs that are at the vital center of almost everything I do. They seemed to have found a place in the lives of many people throughout many different cultures and I’m grateful for that.

But there’s one thing I must say. As a performer I’ve played for 50,000 people and I’ve played for 50 people and I can tell you that it is harder to play for 50 people. 50,000 people have a singular persona, not so with 50. Each person has an individual, separate identity, a world unto themselves. They can perceive things more clearly. Your honesty and how it relates to the depth of your talent is tried. The fact that the Nobel committee is so small is not lost on me.

But, like Shakespeare, I too am often occupied with the pursuit of my creative endeavors and dealing with all aspects of life’s mundane matters. “Who are the best musicians for these songs?” “Am I recording in the right studio?” “Is this song in the right key?” Some things never change, even in 400 years.

Not once have I ever had the time to ask myself, “Are my songs literature?”

So, I do thank the Swedish Academy, both for taking the time to consider that very question, and, ultimately, for providing such a wonderful answer.

My best wishes to you all,

Bob Dylan

© The Nobel Foundation 2016.