DIY weird sound synthesis with CMOS

Making music has never been easier than it is now. With the power of modern tablets or even smartphones, the range of sounds available is immense. I’ve been playing with Caustic 2 on my android tablet, and it’s amazing. Powerful, predictable, musical.

But touchscreen interfaces feel soulless, slick and virtual. There’s no texture to them, no physical feedback through the tips of the fingers. And no opportunity to create weird-science artefacts.

Analogue Sounds

Building electronic musical instruments from scratch is not a new idea. Back before digital circuitry took over the world, people built amazing and often huge sound-makers using analogue circuitry. They were finicky beasts – expensive, fragile, temperamental and hard to keep in tune if the temperature changed. And they tended to be able to only make one note at a time, so multi-track tape recording and huge amounts of patience were needed to produce any sort of music.

My first exposure to that sort of music was Jean-Michel Jarre’s 1976 album Oxygene. I played that cassette tape over and over as a teenager.  Then I moved to the city where live performance pub rock was king.  Digital keyboards took over from the analog monsters.

But there are still people devoted to the analogue ways of synthesising sounds. People still build analogue systems from scratch with soldering irons and wooden enclosures. Ironically, the retro appeal of analogue synth sounds has now become so intense that most digital software synths emulate the old analogue systems in software.

Analogue Sounds from Digital Chips

The simplest and cheapest way to make your own electronic noisemaker is to pervert the use of digital logic chips. The integrated circuits that were developed in the 1960s and 1970s to build the first desktop computers are really cheap now. Like one dollar each cheap.

For around a dollar you can buy a single IC that can produce six independent sounds at the same time. Chuck in a few more chips and you can be building sequencers to control the rhythms, modulate the sound quality by waving your hands about, and cause random chaotic sounds that may be more industrial or arcade-game than musical.

The secret is a series of techniques taught by a guy called Stanley Lunetta back in the early 1970s. The chips were not so cheap then, but it was still cheaper than any other way of doing it. Enthusiasts have taken his insights into the pervertable brilliance of digital chips and taken the whole idea to new heights.

The internet home of this subculture is the Lunettas subforum at There is a thread full of useful links, and a thread full of images and sound samples, amongst lots of discussion.  The really cool thing is that as well as constantly discovering new ways to make strange noises, the practice really seems to encourage the creation of strange and beautiful user interfaces too. Many of these things really are Weird Science artefacts. So even if you don’t like the noises, maybe you’ll love the boxes people put them in. I do!

CMOS Synth Resources

As well as the forums, there are lots of other good sources for this stuff. Here are a few of my favourites.

Nic Collins‘ book Handmade Electronic Music has been a starting point for many folks with no electronics experience. The second edition, which I have, has a DVD of him demonstrating the circuits and techniques, and almost 90 minutes of video of other people’s creations using similar techniques.

Sebastian Tomczak has written a great intro to CMOS noise makers, referencing Nic Collins book.

Beavis Audio Research also has a beautifully presented intro to CMOS Synthesizers. It assumes you can understand electronic schematics.

Gallery of Extreme User-Interface Designs

Most of these images have come from the Let’s see your Lunetta thread from Some are from elsewhere. Sorry for the lack of attribution – I’ve left the filenames as I found them in the hope that you can find the originals by searching if you want to learn more about how they were created. And I hope you can see why I contrast the physical nature of these machines with the shiny slickness of making music on a tablet.

vox_insecta t_img_1136_100 Schaltzentrale3 Schaltzentrale2 pwmlunetta__07_249 pwmlunetta__01_180 noisA MurderBox-1 lunetta skull003 dworkianregister1s drum1 CMOS 4000 Logic Synth beefheartcake amfmkeyb_1 6681073401_676ec90f9b_z 5175860202_c467a6a942 5175260405_d6d1ac5384 8tone

3 thoughts on “DIY weird sound synthesis with CMOS

  1. I have never met Mr. Lunetta. Although I have seen him in the pit at the Sacramento Music Circus many times.
    The first band I was in, the drummer, Scott Hennige (in the original lineup of “Asleep At The Wheel”) took lessons from Mr. Lunetta.

    Because of that awareness, I happen to notice an announcement in the Sacramento Bee (I think) that Mr. Lunetta was leading an all percussion ensemble from Berkeley, Ca. in a performance at the Garden and Arts building adjacent to McKinley Park. I don’t really know what prompted me to skip school and attend this event…at 14, I had no idea of this performance was going to be.

    I arrived and as I entered, I began noticing immediately that everyone in attendance were middle aged women only. I really wanted to see what the performance was going to be about so I stayed. I found a seat…and soon I was approached by a woman who asked if I would like some coffee and a slice of cake. I accepted and again sat at my seat.

    A woman addressed the attendees and introduced Mr. Lunetta. He didn’t look like any of The Beach Boys…or The Four Seasons. His hair was somewhat longish and not only did I look out of place, so did he.

    He introduced the group from Berkeley and commenced with the concert. Mind you, the only music I have ever listened at that time was either on the radio or the TV…popular music. What I heard was at the same time, wonderful and amazing. It was the strangest and most different thing I had ever heard. This, coming from a beginning guitarist whose heroes were The Ventures, The Beach Boys and all the surf bands at the time.

    I didn’t know what I was listening to. I couldn’t tap my foot to it…it had to obvious melody…no true key signature. It was a sound made by people hitting things. But it did have a rhythm. It did have dynamics. I caught the bus and went for a wild ride and I soon forgot that I was playing hooky and wondering what the ladies were thinking of me.

    It was one of the best performances I’ve ever attended. Its a shame I was such a knucklehead not to develop a curiosity to find more of Mr. Lunetta’s performances.

    All I know is that he is a treasure to be sure. Thank you for all you have given to art, and thank you for all that you have given to this community, Sacramento..and of course, Davis.

    1. Hey Robert, thanks for such a beautifully written remembrance of that Stanley Lunetta performance. I’m jealous :)

      Maybe now is the best time to be interested in the musical form he pioneered. It is surely easier to learn the tricks and techniques from enthusiasts on the internet now than it was in the days of printed zines and bootleg tape compilations. So long as kind people such as yourself write up your memories to help those of us who were not there at the time.

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