I like to think of my studio gear as partners in the creative process rather than as tools. Like their human counterparts, instruments and effects with a strong personality are inspiring, especially if they fight back a little or offer a bit of mystery. Equipment with attitude is what this article is all about.
I've chosen five products — two instruments and three effects — that offer a fresh approach to music making, even when the initial interface (as in the case of the Wretch Machine) follows a somewhat traditional layout. Each offers a healthy amount of unpredictability that can be creatively harnessed in real time. So whether you're looking for unusual textures, outrageous loop fodder, or exotic spices to sprinkle into your tracks, these hardware “collaborators” are worth getting to know.
FIG. 1: The Rec, Loop, and Hold switches on the Flame MIDI-Talking-Synth let you set up repeating patterns.
The futuristic babbling of a circuit-bent toy is a wonderful source for sound-design elements and groove mining. Although the indeterminacy of the creative short circuit is hard to beat, sometimes a composer needs a bit more control over the sounds. That's where the Flame MIDI-Talking-Synth ($549) comes in handy.
The German-built Flame marries a pair of voice chips to hardware controls and a MIDI interface to take advantage of the chips' musically rich possibilities (see Fig. 1). The 8-bit Magnevation SpeakJet chip offers a single-voice, 5-channel synthesizer using the company's proprietary Mathematical Sound Architecture technology to model specific allophones that are created by the vocal cavity when a person speaks. (Allophones are variations of particular phonemes depending on where they would occur in the mouth when used in actual words.)
The chip is programmed with 72 speech elements and offers real-time control over rate, frequency, pitch-bend, and volume parameters. The Flame's front-panel controls are designed to take advantage of these parameters, while the MIDI interface adds further functionality by letting you access strings of allophones that have been formed into words, so you can build sentences with a keyboard controller or sequencer.
The SpeakJet chip also offers 12 DTMF (dual-tone multifrequency) Touch Tone sounds, like you hear when dialing a phone, and 43 sound effects. (Further information on the SpeakJet chip, especially for you DIY-ers, can be downloaded at www.magnevation.com/pdfs/speakjetusermanual.pdf.) The Flame's two SpeakJet chips work in tandem, and each chip gets its own output, giving you a 2-channel, pseudostereo signal that you can exploit with the onboard controls. However, the unit has a single output jack, so you'll need a ¼-inch Y-cable (such as an insert cable) to hear the left and right channels simultaneously.
With a sturdy metal case about the size of a thick paperback, the Flame is small enough to sit on a crowded desktop or a MIDI keyboard controller. It features 2 joysticks, 6 knobs, and 18 switches, and it's very easy to use in its standalone Sequencer mode: just move the Talk joystick, and the Flame will speak (see Web Clip 1). Its position determines which allophone you hear. The Note joystick changes the frequency of the sound depending on its position (see Web Clip 2).
The Flame's two performance modes are Sequencer, for using the built-in controls, and Expander, for using an external MIDI controller. You select the modes from the front panel, as well as start and stop the internal clock and determine whether the Flame uses its internal clock or locks to MIDI Clock. An onboard tempo knob controls the internal clock.
Independent switches let you select whether each chip plays allophones or sound effects, and you can dial in one of seven sound banks using a stepped pot (some of the sound banks are duplicated on the switch). In Expander mode, MIDI notes are mapped to words.
To add variety, you can switch in the “randomize” function for each chip and control the degree to which the sounds are affected (see Web Clip 3). To take the processing one step further, you can independently add tremolo to the sound of each chip, in rhythmic unison or alternating (see Web Clip 4). You can also corral the allophones into a major or minor sonority, and a stepped knob lets you select the key center from 12 chromatic steps.
Most important, from a performance point of view, there are two kinds of switches that set up a loop. Each joystick has an associated Rec switch: turn it on, and the joystick's movements from the last two bars (based on the MIDI Clock) are recorded and looped. To hold a specific joystick position, use the Loop and Hold switches. The looping functions are a clever addition to the Flame, and I found myself endlessly exploiting them (see Web Clip 5).
I've used the Flame onstage and in the studio, and it has never disappointed me. With the ability to add a degree of uncertainty using the Random control, as well as the Tremolo and Tuning functions, the Flame works well as a sound-design tool for instances where you want to create and control vocal-like textures that have movement and musicality in real time. And it's just plain fun to use.
Continue reading about the five unusual hardware products for creative musicians.
Synthesis in a Vacuum
Although Eric Barbour designed an all-tube, 4-voice synth several years ago, it was an expensive and labor-intensive instrument, and only a couple were made. After perfecting various synth components in pedal form through his Metasonix TM- and TX-series, Barbour recently unveiled his next-generation tube synth, the S-1000 ($2,950), code-named the Wretch Machine.
In terms of features, the Wretch Machine follows a fairly standard mono-synth layout: two VCOs, two LFOs, a resonant multimode VCF, a pair of 2-stage envelope generators (one attack-release and one attack-decay), a VCA, and a waveshaper. Eleven vacuum tubes protrude from the top panel: a clear plastic frame protects fingers from accidental burns and the tubes from breakage (see Fig. 2). The top of the largest tube, located on the right, displays a set of green bars that move independently to indicate the speed of the LFOs, as well as the shape of the AR envelope — a useful feature.
FIG. 2: Eleven unusual vacuum tubes are at the heart of the Metasonix Wretch Machine, a monophonic synth for people who like to take chances.
The instrument can sit on the desktop and is also rackmountable (6U). Everything you need is on the front panel except for the power connector, which you'll have to leave room for above the synth in your rack.
As with other semimodular analog synths, the Wretch Machine has a jack field on it, but it can be played without using patch cords by simply pressing the joystick. Right out of the box, the Wretch Machine gives you rich, band-limited sounds that would fit nicely into a '50s sci-fi soundtrack or a Nine Inch Nails song (see Web Clip 6). So don't look to it for shiny, perky sounds: It screams. It howls. It broods darkly. Moog-like it ain't! And just when you thought you'd heard all it can do, patch in some CVs and triggers from an external source, and an entirely new instrument appears (see Web Clip 7).
You'll be hard-pressed to get the exact same sound each time you try to re-create a patch, because there are subtle differences in the behavior of each tube. But this variability is exactly what makes the Wretch Machine sonically rewarding.
The thyratron tube-based VCOs have an overall frequency range of 33 Hz to >2 kHz, with roughly a 2-octave range in each of three settings. The waveforms offered are triangle, square, and square with suboctave. Each oscillator has a master tune pot, range and level controls, and recessed span and trimmer pots for fine-tuning the response. Setting up the Wretch Machine to play exact pitches over the full two octaves with both oscillators in tune requires a bit of extra effort, but it's doable. A soft-sync switch is also included.
The VCOs go straight to a waveshaping circuit that allows you to add a tunable, pulsing component that is the aural equivalent of panfrying your sound. Next is the filter — the classic Twin-T notch design using two parallel bandpass filters — which offers bandpass, lowpass, and “bass-only response,” as on the TM-6 multimode filter (see the review at www.emusician.com). The resonant pitch depends on the range setting and filter type chosen, but the maximum frequency is about 1.7 kHz.
A welcome feature of the Wretch Machine is the built-in multifunction joystick, which not only acts as a trigger when pressed quickly (and a gate when held in), but also changes the pitch of the oscillators (up and down) and opens and closes the filter (left and right). The attack and release knobs control the VCA's behavior.
The joystick is very sensitive and helps make the Wretch Machine a useful performance instrument on its own (see Web Clip 8). However, it doesn't always return to the same place when you move it, so your finely tuned oscillators will go astray each time you use the joystick or accidentally bump it. According to Barbour, the weight of the brass ball on the end makes it prone to shifting from vibration. The joystick is friction fit, so if you want the VCOs to remain tuned, gently twist and pull the stick off the control shaft to disable it. (I kept the joystick in place when using MIDI to control the synth, being extra careful not to nudge it, and I didn't have any problems.)
The main trigger/gate input can handle 5 to 12V positive signals, including a strong audio signal. If you use a MIDI-to-CV converter to control the Wretch Machine, then it must be Hz/V compatible if you want scales in 12-tone equal temperament or a predictable CV response. Of course, you can also use a volts-per-octave converter and just deal with the results. Although Metasonix no longer offers the option of installing a Synhouse MIDI In port into the Wretch Machine, a number of products support V/octave and Hz/V, such as the Kenton Pro Solo Mk II (www.kenton.co.uk) and the Future Retro Mobius (www.future-retro.com).
Another interesting feature of the synth is the pair of modulation buses that let you use the LFOs and EGs to control VCO pitch, the filter, and the pulser. The LFOs, which are triangle waves with a range of 0.5 to 10 Hz, can also control the squarer (clipping) function when an oscillator is in square-wave mode.
With its 18 ¼-inch patch points, the Wretch Machine integrates well into a modular analog system. Each VCO has an audio output, a pair of pitch CV inputs, and a CV input to the squarer. (The response of the squarer and pulser to CVs is very subtle.) I often processed the VCO outs separately and mixed them back into a patch (see Web Clip 9). External audio inputs are provided for the filter, waveshaper, and VCA if you want to use the Wretch Machine as an effects processor. Lastly, there are CV inputs to the waveshaper and filter, as well as individual outputs for the LFOs, EGs, and Mod Bus B. Clearly, Metasonix thought things through.
As a mono synth costing nearly $3,000, the Wretch Machine is a serious investment for almost anyone. However, like other Metasonix products, its sound and behavior are unique and designed to open ears and minds. The Wretch Machine will inspire musicians who enjoy dangerous audio surprises.
Send and Return
I love stompboxes — the wackier the better. Thankfully, there are dozens of boutique pedal manufacturers that care enough about sound — high- and low-fidelity — that my wish list will never be completely fulfilled. But if you think stompboxes start and end with fuzzes, flangers, and phasers, read on: there are some delightfully strange ways to mess with your tone and add a new dimension of creativity to your existing pedalboard.
Effector 13 Truly Beautiful Disaster
Combining oscillating distortion, a feedback effects loop, and a photoresistor, the Effector 13 Truly Beautiful Disaster (TBD; $225) is a stompbox that easily becomes an instrument (see Fig. 3). As a fuzz box, the TBD offers a gnarly square-wave distortion with strong suboctave tones that pop out and arpeggiate downward, depending on how you set the controls (see Web Clip 10). The octave portion can be set to drop in pitch as your string decays or override your guitar sound altogether, with plenty of gradation in between. Knobs for fuzz, blend, octave (oscillation), and output volume are provided, as is a gate switch that cuts off the effect after your string decays past a certain level.
FIG. 3: The effects send and feedback loop in the Effector 13 Truly Beautiful Disaster can be controlled with the built-in photo-sensitive eye.
However, the most exciting part about this box is the effects loop, which includes a Feedback mode that can be controlled with a photoresistor. The feedback circuit and photosensor can be switched in and out independently. Any pedals you've plugged into the effects loop come alive when you switch on the feedback.
The photosensitive eye can be used to lower the pitch of the TBD's octave effect or gate the output altogether. At one point, I was able to create a subtle vibrato by waving my hand over the eye when an Effector 13 Torn's Peaker was in the loop. Of course, the sonic results of the feedback loop depend on which effects are used and how their parameters are set. Eventually, the feedback signal builds to a point where an input signal isn't even necessary — or audible.
For example, a distortion box in the loop creates a sustained, wide-band sound that changes with the settings of the TBD's feedback control, as well as the distortion box's controls. With an Alesis Philtre multimode filter in the loop, I was able to get stepped-frequency feedback tones thanks to the Philtre's onboard LFO. Combining the Torn's Peaker and Philtre resulted in a crunchy randomized melody (see Web Clips 11 through 13). Of course, flangers and phasers also sound great in the loop.
FIG. 4: The Audible Disease Rupture RP-1 offers an inexpensive way to get feedback with an effects loop.
Audible Disease Rupture RP-1
If you can live without the fuzz and photosensitive eye of the TBD, Audible Disease's Rupture RP-1 ($75) provides a less expensive way to get effects-loop feedback. Whatever pedals you place in the loop will behave normally until you hit the switch and kick in the feedback path. The knob controls the amount of feedback introduced into the signal. And there are six designs from which to choose (see Fig. 4).
The Rupture's feedback loop worked equally well with fuzz, phaser, and filter pedals in its path. I particularly liked how it sounded with a fuzz box and a TC Electronic Phase XII reissue (www.tcelectronic.com) (see Web Clip 14). You'll have hours of fun rediscovering the hidden potential of the pedals lying around in your studio.
Another twist to putting an effects loop in a stompbox format is the ToadWorks Enveloope ($264.99). In this case, the envelope of the input signal determines the amount of processing added into the signal path. (The kind of processing depends on which effects you have in the loop.) The Sensitivity knob sets the input-signal threshold when you use dynamics to control the effects loop, while the Release control sets the length of the effect remaining after the input signal drops below the input threshold.
You can reverse the envelope effect by pulling up on the Release knob: signal processing will be heard when you play at a level that is below the input-sensitivity setting, and the unprocessed signal will appear as you play harder. This takes the term playing with dynamics to a new level. To defeat the dynamic control altogether and use the Enveloope as a high-quality, buffered effects loop, simply pull up on the Sensitivity knob.
To get the most out of the Enveloope with line-level sources, such as drum machines or recorded tracks, you will want to use a device such as the Reamp (www.reamp.com) to lower the level enough for the Sensitivity control to react properly. For an in-depth review of the Enveloope, as well as audio examples, visit www.emusician.com.
FIG. 5: The ToadWorks Enveloope can be used as a high-quality, dynamically controlled effects loop.
All Together Now
With all of the babbling electronics, squealing tubes, and feeding back you'll experience when using these crafty products, don't forget to keep your DAW in Record mode. Sometimes the most inspiring raw material appears as you explore an instrument or effect configuration for the first time.
Gino Robair is the editor of EM. Special thanks to Analogue Haven (www.analoguehaven.com).
Audible Disease/NoiseFX (distributor)