Saturday, November 26, 2011

Finding a good home for her and Guest Speakers...

As many synthheads know part of working with and owning esoteric gear is finding it. This frequently involves trades as well as buying and selling pieces, etc. In fact the acquisition of my 200e was only possible because I had acquired a Serge synth in various pieces over the past decade and someone wanted all of it for all of his Buchla system. Recently I posted one piece of my system for sale in order to raise some funds for other items. (A typical geek process - why use the money for something useful or necessary when you can buy more synths?!) I was thrilled when an acquaintance I highly respect wrote me to buy it. In the trading biz we call this "sending it to a good home" and I could think of no better place for this rare piece than with John Potter aka ether^ra.

The piece I sold was a Cyndustries Zero Oscillator in Buchla 200e format know as the ZOe. According to the official description: "The Zeroscillator is a full-featured electronic-music-quality analog VCO capable of linear frequency modulation through zero hertz and into negative frequencies". I have been a fan since they came out and in fact the owner of Cyndustries, Cynthia used one of my tracks in her first
ZO promo video for NAMM back in 2007. (See and hear it here.)

Alas, esoteric, boutique instruments aren't always easy to come by. In this care the Buchla version ZOe was a highly limited edition to start with, had some quirks, and there have been months going on years of delays in releasing the next batch. Anyone interested in the saga can pop on the Muffwiggler forum to find out more but suffice to say, customer service and ordering woes aside the piece itself is a wonderful tool for sound creation. Since I already had a Zero Oscillator in my ModcanA system and I knew they were in demand my ZOe went on the chopping block.

It turns out all is well and the ZOe from my system is happy in it's new home and already making music (the whole point of all this geekery).

Here is John's first demo using the ZOe in his system:

Also be sure to follow his blog on music and art at:

Finally, I wanted to post another page which is full of free MP3s using a Buchla. In addition to running Eardrill Chris Muir does some amazing music and all his pieces are worth a listen. I want to call special attention to one of my favorites, a cover of the Beatles song, "Blackbird" using a Buchla 200e system. Apparently this came about as a joke in response to some folks mentioning most demos of Buchla synths were more experimental in structure, noisy, and non melodic. I think this track combines the best of all those and is actually quite beautiful.

Surf on!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011


One of the reasons I started this blog was to have a running diary or some of my synth and modular experiences. While I do use these instruments for songs and at times even construct full shows, albums, or sound design projects I also use them for... well, Therapy.

I find the act of turning on and plugging into all these boxes and wires can yield the same results as taking a long walk in the woods. Or meditation. It's relaxing, focusing, and cathartic. My large modulars reside on one table in my main studio and everything is wired up to a power conditioner. With the flick of one switch these sleeping monsters come to life.

I usually start by taking all the patch cables out picking a single initial sound source. This way I start fresh with no specific agenda. It's like the aural equivalent of clearing one's throat. Or mind for that matter. From there I patch and tweak the path of the original sound. Maybe it needs to be turned on and off (VCAs/Envelopes) maybe it needs to be swirled around some (Filters, Phasers, Delays), maybe it just needs to be heard. I stick with this one sound until another shows up starts it's own similar journey. Then the two go off in search of more. This method tends to lead towards minimalism where I focus on a small group of sounds but get them grow and evolve as the jam goes on. Getting a distinct aural impression from each piece is important and I spend a lot of time with mixers in my system bringing things forward, setting others aside, etc.

Modular synthesizers lend themselves very well to this process. You start with a single building block and , by their very nature, have to attach it to something else and then attach that to something else. And so on. Much like other art forms like painting or writing there are no real guidelines letting you know when you are "finished". You do something, refine it, take it out, put it back in, and keep going until you're either satisfied you have something worth looking, reading, or listening to or you throw it all away and start anew. The process is the thing, not the end result. Until, of course, you are "done".

Last night I sat down for one such session. It had been a few weeks since I turned on the 200e and I decided to challenge myself by incorporating something new into the system and then using only a handful of pieces to make something out of it. The result is this recording:

Play.Record.Volume.Tone. by DAEDSound

Using the method described above I started with running a pattern from my trusty TR606 drum machine into the 207e Preamp. I purposely overdrove it a bit (the 606 really responds well to being thrown into a warm bath of dirt) and then decided to run it into the filter only section of the 292e. The Mod Osc of the 259e is slowly modulating the CV curve allowing the low pass section to open a bit more now and then.

I then took the Env Detector output of the 207e and ran it into the CV in on the 259e principle Osc. The Mod Osc here was also internally patched to sweep between the A and B banks of the 259 and to make things interesting I added another cable from the Preamp out into the Warp CV of the 259 as well and mixed that in live.

Two happy accidents occurred. The first was I didn't recognize the pattern on the drum machine at first. I know my 606 VERY well and found this odd. When I took a look at it I realized the tempo was set down. WAY down. I liked it and left it that way allowing what normally would be cannon ball toms blasting to sound like slow creeping soft rolls of sound. The unique filtering effects of the vactrols on the 292e certainly added to this.

The second "mistake" was that the envelope detector triggered the 259s in a kind of bassline pattern which mutated a bit as I mixed in the snare and other sounds. Now of course the whole point of an envelope detector is to create a pulse or gate out based on the audio sound coming IN. But since I had overdriven the preamp a bit the bassline wasn't quite 100% consistent and adding and taking out other sounds in the audio path created slightly different rhythms. It's one of those "of course it does that" things when you look at it on paper but you never know how it's going to work out until you try your source and patch. In this case I liked it.

The final touch was when I started messing with the 261e. I had the Mod Osc slightly modulating the pitch of the Primary Osc but also manually tweaked the Symmetry, High Order, and Timbre as well as the overall main pitch. The result was a great growling and undulating tone that sounded static but was always moving *just* a bit. My favorite kind of drone.

I started by creating and mixing everything on the mixer section of the 207e (for my larger ModcanA Format modular I use a series of Cyndustries MixSix modules when I am in creation mode). For my new recordings I have now moved to a simple Zoom R16 digital recorder however. This means that once I have all the sections lined up in the 207e mixer I backtrack from that and plug a 1/8" to 1/4" cable directly into each sound and run it into it's own channel on the R16. This allows me to capture each sound on it's own WAV file and then I can easily import them and mix, edit, etc in my DAW.

I ended up liking the drone of the 261e during the recording so much I kept going on that long after I had turned off the 259e and 606 sounds. By having all three tracks recorded live and separately I was able to shift the 261e track to start earlier in the mix and then let the final end of that sync up with the fading out of the other pieces. Perhaps I'll do a more in depth post on recording minimal electronic music at some other point but prior to the R16 as a tool I would have most likely only recorded a live L/R stereo out of the entire jam with the fades and edits being done in real time on the mixing module or an external mixer. That has it's place and , as I mentioned, I still compose that way, but having separate WAV files makes things much easier to mix, edit, and mess with down the road.

Of course that introduces the whole "is this DONE?" aspect as well. But we'll leave that for another day and, for now, you can listen to the "final" mix of this track.

Geek Out!

PS: The title comes from an 8track tape release I put out by the indie rock band Overdrive Date Master (yes, we released an 8Track tape back in the 90s!). The pic on the cart was taken from the first page of a Wollensac mono reel-to-reel tape deck manual.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

D-I-Y Buchla... (Part One: I Have the Power!)

I have been making DIY and some custom ordered Modules in various formats for a few years. Mostly ModcanA and Frac format but also stand alone boxes and such. There is a thriving online community that supports self builds and other DIY enthusiasts even make small runs of PCBs and other parts for fellow builders. Forums at Muffwiggler, Electro_music, and even the Synth-DIY mailing list all offer great ideas, advice, and occasionally materials for those interested in "rolling your own" Synth modules.

Not surprisingly there is a very small amount of information on Buchla 200 series DIY modules. I imagine part of this has to do with the rarity and cost of the instruments in the first place. not a lot of folks trying to build to save money have $1.5K modules in their systems. But there are a number of other philosophical and practical reasons as well.

The Buchla 200e system is unlike any other modular. It has a complex series of internal busses and a computer that talks to all the different parts. Even highly professional 200e gurus and manufacturers such as Eardrill or Mark Verbos do not make modules in their series that are compatible with these connections. So, out of the gate we must concede any DIY attempts at modules will not truly be 200e compatible. Which is to say they will not talk to the preset manager among other internal things.

There also is the issue of the Buchla 1.2 octave CV "standard". This is different than every manufacturer including long out of production companies and all Euro, Frac, 5U, and other formats. So without some math work VCO and CV ranges will not track exactly as an actual 200e module.

So, what is a simple DIY builder then left to work with?

The answer is actually quite encouraging: The Power Buss which does power "standard" +/- 15vt PCBs and modules. Manufacturers such as MOTM, Blacet, Modcan, and DIY PCB makers such as CGS, Oakley, etc all offer modules or PCBs that run off the same power values as the 200e. This then in effect gives us access to a wide variety of modules which could be made and installed in a 200e system.

I will leave the philosophical discussion of what "should or could" be built into a 200e for a later post but concentrating on just the practical aspects of DIY Buchla modules let's start with the basics...

All DIY and manufacturer synth modules run off a positive (+), Negative (-) and Ground (gnd) connector. the two most common power ranges are the 12 volt Euro Standard (created by Doepfer in the 1990s) and the 15 volt MOTM/Blacet four pin standard. Since the four pin molex connector is usually used on 15 volt compatible to 200e modules and is readily available on most DIY PCBs I use that as the basis for my Buchla DIY modules.

The fun comes in when we look at the Buchla power and buss connector board. This is a very different looking beast but it's strangeness need not intimidate use as all we are going to use it for is to grab those three common connections for powering our module. I'm talking about the (+,-,and Gnd) connections.

The Buchla Buss and Power board and connector used in their cases and boats looks like this (The internal buss board is on the Left, a Buchla 200e module connector is on the right)

Thanks to the DIY community and Buchla aficionados we know the pin breakouts and part numbers for all these goodies. I got this from Aaron Lanterman's Buchla Tech notes webpage which also quotes Chris Muir of Eardrill. This link is a godsend for making the 200e innards and parts understandable.

"Power on a Buchla module is delivered from a dangling connector. There is a somewhere between a foot and a foot and a half of wire dangling from a module (strain relieved, of course) that terminates in an edac 306-010-500-102 connector.
1 Black: quiet ground 2 White: -15 3 Red: +15 4 Dark Green: +12 5 Orange: +5 6 Brown: noisy ground 7 polarizing key 8 Yellow: i2c clock 9 Green: i2c data 10 nc"
Don't worry if that sounds confusing. All we need for our basic purposes is the first three pins:
So if we wire out "standard" four pin molex connector to the Edac 10 pin Buchla connector it looks something like this:
Pin 1 = Gnd (Green)
Pin 2 = - 15vt (Black)
Pin 3 = +15 vt (Red)

Eagle eyes may notice the Edac 306-010-500-102 has ten connections and the Buchla Pin out above only lists 9 connections. This is because if you look at the 200e power board there is a notch at pin #7. I assume this is to make sure you only install the connector the proper way with pin 1 on the connector lining up with pin 1 on the power board. As you can see on the connector I used I marked this slot and cut off the pin so I would be sure to not reverse the connection.
The finished connector going from the four pin molex connector to the 10 pin Buchla Edacconnector looks like this:
(Note the notch lining up with pin #7 on the Buchla connector and Buss board)
All the standard disclaimers about doing this at your own risk, building, playing with power supplies and electronics apply here. Do NOT do this unless you have knowledge and experience making modules and with power supplies, connectors, soldering, etc. You are 100% responsible for your own music so you're 100% responsible for your own instruments as well.
To emphasize this a bit more consider outside of heath and other issues it's one thing to burn out your DIY module that cost parts and time. It's another to damage your $10k++ Buchla system and void your warranty. I did a world of testing the module with an external +/1 15vt power supply and then tried it out with my Frac panel and Modcan A System quite a few times before I plugged it into the 200e buss. And I started with a pretty much already self contained and assembled PCB (see THIS post for details) to go even slower. I am happy to report everything works and sounds great.
Stay tuned to this blog for other posts in the DIY series which will on both some tech points as well as ideas for modules which might compliment the 200e from outside manufacturer's of PCBs and Kits.
Solder an Soldier on!