Back in April of this year, I wrote an article for Resident Advisor on the growing sub-culture of producers who are learning to circuit bend and modify their own analog gear. During the course of my research on the subject, I was introduced to sound, visual and analog artist, Eric Archer. My interview with Eric was really quite essential to my article as a whole. In fact, the interview itself was interesting enough on its own that I wanted to share it here on my blog along with pictures of his analog experiments. The following is the Q&A session I had with Eric in its entirety.
From what I’ve read, you’ve been into electronics from an early age. When did you get into synths/drum machines/etc.? Did you get into them from a musician’s perspective or from an engineer’s perspective?
I love the sound of the 808 and its x0x relatives and I wanted to understand the physical reality of whats inside it, to have the knowledge the original designers had. I wanted access to the same palette of analog circuitry they used, because its ultra-minimal stuff and within that is a special kind of truth, it has a purity that I admire. Imagine the challenge to take the sound of an arbitrary percussion instrument and translate it into transistors and opamps. It’s not going to be a perfect sonic clone, but instead you get something unique and potentially magic.
Studying this stuff is really rewarding, I’ve gained insight on how technological progress has guided the evolution of electronic music. At every stage of progress from tubes to chips, someone has been there pushing the envelope with creative circuitry in service of aesthetics, to please the ear, to give musicians a new expressive tool. Yet, looking under the hood at synths of different eras, you can see sort of a struggle between the consumer and the manufacturer. And in the fray, a lot of good circuits have been forgotten. I’m fascinated as an engineer by the challenge of recreating these circuits and understanding exactly how they work. Then, the fun part is making creative changes to arrive at something new, something that potentially could have existed back in the day, but perhaps it was just a bit too complicated or bizarre to be mass produced.
When did you get into circuit bending? What were some of the first bends you did to studio gear (as opposed to toys)? Why did you choose these specific pieces of hardware? What results were you going for?
As a kid I built lots of Forrest Mims projects and had some fun with contact points in Casios but didn’t think much of it until my late 20′s. Thats when I quit a chemistry career and started messing with electronics again. Saturn Return I suppose? Suddenly I had a lot of time on my hands and an apartment full of electronics.
I picked stuff to bend that I hadn’t seen done before, forbidden stuff with AC power connections like FX processors. Digital answering machines make glitchy lo-fi samplers. I integrated one inside a cruddy bass amp and presto, an amp with record and playback features! I tried things with visual output rather than audio, like an electronic typewriter and video projector. The Indian company Radel makes funky electronic tabla boxes, I found these sound quite awesome with bends.
I’ve modded a lot of gear recently. Erich Ragsdale’s TX-606 (based on TR-606) is certainly the most elaborate, its a luxury device. Then there’s more utilitarian mods like adding 36 mute switches to my Studiomaster Diamond mixer. Why don’t mixers ever have mutes on the aux sends? I don’t get it.
From what I’ve heard (and watched) with Bodytronix, you’re doing pretty straight-forward dance music with not-so-straight-forward (to put it mildly) gear. Most of your work is experimental but with Bodytronix, you’re doing something more aesthetically accessible. Why?
I enjoy Bodytronix because at the heart it’s truly experimental, but we’re playing sounds that make me want to get up, stuff that pivots on rhythm and melody. My previous experimental projects seemed to gravitate toward a melancholic, alienating vibe, and that sort of limited emotional spectrum became tiresome. But, start up a good bassline over an 808 beat and that always makes me smile.
Anyway, I’ve always loved electro, techno, acid, so its fun to tackle these genres with handmade instruments. It may not be obvious when hearing Bodytronix, but some of the rhythm and melodic sequences are generated by algorithms. I like designing hardware that composes music automatically. Its a thrill to put these untested ideas into practice for the first time and crank the result thru a nice PA. Then we have a beat, we have bass, and everybody’s having fun.
You used to work fixing high-end studio gear and hardware. What insights did that give you about modifying/bending gear?
Doing repairs exposes you to schematics for all kinds of audio circuitry, and with the pressure to get it working so you can earn a buck, stuff starts to make sense pretty fast. Studio gear is quite educational to look inside because you’re seeing stuff that was designed for performance, rather than simply being cheap and easy to mass produce.
In a nutshell? Hot glue sucks.
Could you elaborate on the continuum from bending through modding to design?
In all three scenarios, you’ve got a soldering iron, some wire and components. The first case, bending, its an entry level approach in that there’s little or no theory, its just trying random stuff until either you like the result, get tired, or fail by destroying the device you were messing with. Next, learn to read schematics and understand a little about how electrons move, now you’ve got a measure of insight and you can start to plan specific mods on your gear. You know in advance more or less what effect you want to produce, and you understand which components to focus on to get results. Finally, once you start digging in the books, you see things from an electron’s perspective, you’ve digested stacks of schematics from classic gear you respect, and the oscilloscope is no longer a mystery. Then you can sit down with a pencil and paper and sketch something new on a creative impulse – and the real experiment is to build it and see if it sounds anywhere close to what you imagined.
Could you go into detail about your live setup for Bodytronix (perhaps focusing more on your favorite instruments)? I’d be very interested in knowing more about the drum machine you built.
Erich and I have duplicate set-ups in essence, because we each use an analog drum machine, a sequenced bassline monosynth, and a vintage keyboard synthesizer. So the layers can get thick. Erich’s got a TR-606 that is really boss, it has pretty much every mod he asked for. That, plus an external handclap machine we call the Clap-raca. Its a hybrid of the 808 and 909 CP with filter and decay controls. Analog handclap is a very crucial sound. Just as crucial as his x0xb0x. This is essential acid: 606 + 303 + clap, such a classic combo.
For keyboards, Erich’s currently using a Multivox synthesizer, and I like my Yamaha SY-1 and Alesis QS6.1. Gotta have a polysynth for pads, and the Alesis is effective with some help from FX.
Most of my setup is handmade circuits built on perfboard. There are about 30 individual boards split up into 3 boxes. Ten of the boards are drum sounds, another ten are sequencers, and the rest are synths. The drums are based on TR-808 schematics. I built the BD, SD, CH/OH as straight-up clones, but the MT, LT, CP/MA, and CB/RS are experimental. They have additional sequencers onboard, their purpose is to make components materialize in and out of the circuit, sort of like automatically modifying itself in sequenced patterns. That way the sound morphs continuously within a set of discrete possibilities. It can sound really fresh, and alien at the same time. These are special circuits, but fairly complex because they are all analog with discrete logic. I really need to make the 808 cymbal next.
My sequencers are experiments. This is rewarding territory to explore, I enjoy designing algorithms for composition. The drums are triggered by two sequencer algorithms – symmetric and asymmetric. By switching them on and off independently, I can have a four on the floor beat transform into something like a funky solo. The asymmetric sequencer was inspired by a 1972 machine called the Triadex Muse. It contained a really beautiful compositional algorithm. My sequencers are controlled by selecting numbers, and what comes out isn’t always what I expected. Its good that way, the machine always has a new idea for the next rhythm, even if I don’t.
The handmade synths in my setup are pretty strange and amusing. There’s the original Drone Commander prototype, also a modulated grid of LEDs that’s played with a photodiode stylus. These are the little synths, one board each. Then there’s a big synth that spans seven boards. It has a crazy algorithm to generate diatonic melody, and this is sequencing a 3-oscillator monosynth. There’s a second sequencer for synchronized LFO on the filter. It gets sounds from dubby wobble bass to acid leads, and since its controlled by numbers, I pretty much just pick some numbers and let it take care of the details… 4-bar loop of melodic 16th notes in G minor? With acid filter and glide and sub-octave? No problem.
The rest of my stuff is not handmade, like the mixer and FX racks etc. Actually I’m doing some unusual things with the FX. I use a Digitech RDS7.6 delay as the master clock for everything – the delay time knob sets Bodytronix’s BPM. That way I can use the delay as a 2-bar looper, and its always synchronized. The looper is crucial.
Did you know what drum sounds you wanted and then built it, or was there an uncertainty about the tone and texture quality of the final result?
Early on, I tried some stuff that looked cool on paper but just sounds like analog farts. Since then the more drum circuits I build, I get a little better at predicting the results. Its sort of a science or craft maybe, I think just as much as building acoustic drums.