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.
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 electro-music.com. 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 electro-music.com 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 electro-music.com. 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.