Electronic Dream Plant Limited
Twelve miles away from the centre of Oxford, right in the middle of the country, is the Electronic Dream Plant, owned by Adrian Wagner. For two and a half years this company has been producing the Wasp synthesiser which offered several innovative features such as its portability and a full complement of variable controls including two oscillators and a digital touch sensitive keyboard, considering its very low cost.
At first the complete synthesiser was built at EDP, including the assembly and final testing, although more recently some of the large scale production is done through a local factory. The attractive country house that forms the base for EDP has been converted to accommodate assembly, workshop, test area and stores.
The Company name came as a result of Adrian moving from London to set up a recording studio with the title 'Electronic Dream Plant.'
Soon Chris Huggett, a technical engineer, joined him at Oxford and development began on a very cheap synthesiser. In fact, the final instrument became a little more expensive than planned, so this was called the Wasp and they have only recently finished their original idea, the Gnat.
Chris had initially little knowledge of synthesiser techniques and relied on Adrian to suggest the make-up of the instrument. Very quickly, they came up with a digital keyboard prototype that could be battery powered and yet still remain stable in terms of pitch generation, by means of a digital code for each note. From the start they found that because they were developing on what was for them entirely new ground, they would arrive at an easier, or better alternative to previous design ideas for synthesisers. The Caterpillar Keyboard Controller in many respects came about as a result of suggestions from users of the original Wasp and the subsequent development to overcome various problems.
Adrian finds that designing is very much trial and error, just like composing a piece of music. One fundamental design feature that was required for the Wasp was the use of a single circuit board for ease of construction and the first production Wasps were made in September 1978. Much to everyone's surprise and delight the 100 units made were sold in 3 hours from one London shop, and this immediately caused some problems in getting another batch ready. The actual business of manufacturing at that time was quite new to Adrian and he found it very difficult to keep all the components in stock for production to continue.
'The Wasp's success is due to two reasons' states Adrian. 'Partly the price and then its appearance, looking like a toy. The latter is important because it's not oppressive and it has no complication about it, with controls reading from left to right. The plastic case was chosen for economy and the touch keyboard was the only way we could keep the final price right down. This type of keyboard can also be used by non-keyboard musicians — drummers and guitarists often use it as an extra effects box.'
The keyboard design is not related to the early EMS Synthi-A keyboard, but was more like the action of a Theremin, working through capacitance sensitivity. The design allows any part of the note outline drawn on the keyboard to function by touching with a finger, and with careful adjustment can be played by moving the finger across the notes even without touching.
Adrian admits that production went badly at first and they knew that there was a big risk taking on production of a complete product. Rather than go to a major manufacturer, where changes would be difficult once the production model was made (there have already been 10 major modifications made to the Wasp over 2½ years), they tried to do the whole job themselves and soon found the main problem was in the supply of the components. Since then they've had to put out extra production to local factories to cope with their three extra instruments: the Deluxe, the Caterpillar and the Gnat.
The Wasp synthesiser was one of the first instruments to be completely portable and playable anywhere, through its built-in speaker. Nine volt d.c. power can be from standard or ni-cad batteries, or via a regulated battery eliminator. There's even been a jam session in Shaftesbury Avenue with rock stars busking on the Wasp!
It was designed to contain all the basic features for synthesising sound. Adrian emphasises the need for 2 oscillators, noise, control modulation and a filter section that is not just low pass type, which tends to make layers rather muddy when multi-tracking. The Wasp has low, band and high pass filters with proper 'Q' control of each.
The Spider Sequencer came out over a year ago at Olympia and was a great success because of its large memory storage and cheapness at £199 compared with other current designs.
The Spider was designed to operate in two modes, the first being 'real' time with 84 note storage capacity. Unlike other sequencers that rely on you to set the clock fast enough to take the quickest notes you play, this mode stores exactly any note or silence up to 5 seconds duration before using up the next 'note,' (by holding on, off and wait times in digital form). In 'pulse' time it acts like a conventional sequencer that uses pots to set each note pitch, except that it is set instead from the Wasp keyboard step by step with a maximum of 252 notes and can then be synchronised to pulses from the tape recorder for multi-track work. Notes can be deleted, extra spaces inserted, and a lot of people have been using the Roland Dr. Rhythm Unit with the sequencer to get rhythm and bass backing.
Adrian feels that the Wasp and its accessories will always be useful because of the linking facilities between instruments by means of the digital coding system. Links are made through a 7-pin DIN socket and there are 6 bits of TTL that hold the key code and 1 bit for the trigger. This makes connection to a micro through its parallel input/output port quite easy, without the need for A to D or D to A conversion. The coding system also allows the Caterpiller to operate four Wasps and still have a separate 'voice' patching facility. Programs can be dumped on cassette and the Spider only uses ½K of storage to remember 252 notes.
Incidentally, choosing names for instruments can be difficult with many ending up as a code number. Adrian prefers a 'friendly' image for his products and so chose the insect names for monophonic and bird names for polyphonic instruments.
Since the Wasp sells at £199 (having had a price increase of £1 since it was launched!), the next step was to try and bring out another instrument even cheaper, and so the result was the 'Gnat' which sells at £99. This has most of the Wasp features and a single oscillator that can be made to sound like two oscillators. It has a low pass filter and several functions have been put on individual knobs to save space. Every component is circuit-board mounted including the speaker and this has cut tie cost down considerably.
The Wasp DeLuxe was then brought out with a mechanical keyboard and wood finish case, and the Caterpillar is another new product that enables four individual Wasps or Gnats to be controlled from its 4-voice keyboard and will only cost £149.
It has taken a long time to get the scanning right for the Caterpillar — the keyboard is scanned every 4 microseconds in both directions and puts 'keydown' information into a memory 'stack'. A logic programme then sorts out the stack. There are 3 modes of key assignment — the first is called note priority, selecting notes one after each other for synths 1,2,3,4. Second is unison with every last note played going to every synth and the 3rd is the most interesting called 'Sequence' which switches every note you're holding down at any time to each Wasp. So four Wasps and a 3-note triad can give you instant Mozart style chords by putting the fourth synth up an octave on oscillator pitch from the rest. The actual note that is chosen for the fourth synth depends on the order of notes selected at the instant of playing and so will vary. On the other hand, cyclic operation can be effected to make note allocation to each synth in the order 1234-2341-3412-4123 etc., and when each of the Wasps has a completely different sound the results can be very interesting and totally unique. There's also a selection of holds on the machine as well, with unison hold, note priority hold and cycle hold. Note priority hold means that you can hold 3 notes down and whatever you do with the 4th note will always go to the 4th Wasp. The 'cycle' hold will keep each note on — always holding four notes as, for example, you play arpeggios up and down the keyboard.
Having developed a range of instruments that merges into the polyphonic field, EDP is now concentrating on this for the future. Later on this year Adrian hopes to bring out a 4-voice programmable synth with a 4-voice type of 'Spider' selling at £595 and £345 respectively. The 'poly' version of the spider will enable block chord composing as well as the conventional linear style and has full editing facilities. One of its planned innovations is controllable offset that gives time variation (or rubato) within a bar without affecting the total bar count. This in theory is quite simply done by pushing notes further down the memory stack and inserting a space. It will hold 2000 notes divided equally for the four voice layers. Besides full edit controls the sequencer also records settings of sounds using the multivoice. You still have to select the pitch and the oscillator waveform on each synth but you can record various parameters on the spider, making it like a preset programmable device. For example, you could store up to 250 single sound parameters on Voice 1 along with 250 notes on Voice 2. This information can then be dumped onto cassette thus providing basic programming facilities for the Wasp through the Spider. Control of filter frequency envelope and the parameters on the envelope will also be storable on the Spider itself. Connection to the Wasp will be via a multi-way connector so that other Wasps and Spiders can be linked to it, which again builds up the 'Electronic Dream Plant' studio even further.
So the combination of a Caterpillar plus four programmable Wasps leads towards a complete polyphonic synthesiser system. 'Our real dream,' says Adrian, 'is the Eagle, a sixteen voice, totally programmable, floppy disc storage system that is totally micro based. Both the planned polyphonic Spider and the four voice unit have their own micros that are linked through tri-state input/output devices thus keeping the link wires to a minimum.'
Adrian originally considered having his own dedicated chips made but found that it was too expensive and would also restrict further development. So he tends not to think in those terms but more towards microprocessors, and EPROMs. In fact, the original Spider used an EPROM because he was still waiting for the CMOS 87C48 chip to come out to replace it.
It is possible to interface the Wasp to a micro and the company publish a data sheet showing details for linking to several of the currently popular systems. You can play another voltage controlled instrument by connecting it to the control voltage output on the Spider (which has a D to A converter), and if, for example, you want to use a sound on another synthesiser then the Wasp first programmes the Spider and you can then download onto the other instrument. The Spider interfaces with most synthesisers through its CV and Trigger outputs. Both the range and scale of CV output can be altered (there's an exponential converter built in) and triggers can be positive or negative-going.
'We've even received comments that the Spider's CVs can improve the stability of other synths keyboard pitch control — especially where a resistor network is being used — simply because of its digital coding that interfaces through a Ferranti 10-bit D to A converter chip.
'The Spider is not mains powered,' explains Adrian. 'It runs off batteries which last about 1½ hours — because we wanted it to be as portable as the Wasp. Even if the battery runs out, you have up to 2 hours to put in a new one without losing its memory.
'The Eagle will have sound analysis with its 32-bit micro up to 40K, so you will get 25K worth of frequency which is well above audio range. The micro itself will run at 12 MHz and that's 50 MHz in terms of 8-bit! That starts to become very interesting because we are looking in terms of an additive synthesiser, not a subtractive synthesiser, providing a total computer-controlled set of sound waves on top of each other. We plan to have a full colour graphics display on it which will give a music print-out.'
Adrian emphasises that the Eagle will take a long time to develop and it's half a dream at the moment, with only the initial stages completed.
'We are at the stage where you can print out music and we've been doing a lot of extra research at Oxford University. A printer peripheral will enable it to be used as a composing aid because you also can play the music, edit the music, put a full score in if you wish and ask it to print out the parts at the same time. The whole Eagle System will cost around £5,000. Although this is a high price we are trying to make our products cover the whole range of musical synthesis and we obviously expect our very cheap synthesisers to be our main items at present, and yet they will benefit from the advanced technology of the Eagle as prices of chips come down. I can envisage that a synthesiser costing £500 in 10 years time will have all the facilities you'll ever need!'
Coming back to micros, the Spider is the only one that actually uses one at the moment, with the logic for the new Caterpillar operating from an 8035 Intel chip.
'The synthesiser is now an instrument,' says Adrian, 'that can be used by virtually everybody. The important point is that pro-musicians bought them at the beginning but now there are more than 250 shops, including Dixons, stocking Wasps and Gnats for the future.
'Schools are buying them for classroom use — you can connect them altogether to the teacher's instrument that is played whilst pupils operate the controls and we are now providing complete recording/synth studios for educational use based on the Wasp and Teac's Portastudio M-144. Many schools not only want them for their music lessons, but for drama and science as well. It's interesting to note that science departments may well pay over £100 for one oscillator unit — when a digital oscillator on the Wasp is better value because of the other things that go with it. We found that in one school we put a Wasp into, within 2 weeks 10 pupils had gone out to buy their own.
'For a couple of months we put the Wasp out in kit form, but we found that people made errors in soldering its 4½ thousand connections. It's easy for us using a flow soldering machine — you put a board in at one end and it goes through a flux and then it is heated and the whole lot is soldered in one go, taking only 10 seconds (in fact, it took 8½ hours in the early days for our assembly workers to hand-solder a board). It has 48 chips, and the top soldering connections are quite tricky to do. All connections including sockets are made direct to the main board, again for economy.
'There are very few links from one side to the other so in practice the underneath is flow-soldered and then the top is hand-soldered taking about 20 minutes. Readers may not realise that through-hole plating costs three times the amount of money as "double-sided" and you can get a lot of failures. Also, if you have an IC to take off with through-hole plating it's practically impossible.
'One of the main reasons for the Wasps' success is that at first glance people thought that it was a toy, because it has an unconventional appearance. But of course the electronics inside make that machine really versatile as a synthesiser and that's why a lot of professional musicians have used them: Oscar Peterson used three Wasps in a recent broadcast and really enjoys their touch sensitivity. It's gone into many other areas — you have DJ's using them in discos to create sound effects, and theatres use them for offstage noises. This is where the noise generators score for they are digitally-derived and in conjunction with the Sample and Hold (called 'Random' on the Wasp) will produce sounds of rain water and storm effects, as well as rhythmic control of the filter cut-off frequency (listen to E&MM's demo cassette).
'At the beginning we started the project on £3,000 — now we've got National Research Development Corporation backing which is absolutely marvellous for us. This government institution has helped us overcome a lot of the difficulties we've had in extending our business, especially as the research and design costs so much money and getting in stock can take all your capital overnight.'
I asked Adrian if he anticipated that everybody would be making music in some form in the future, just for enjoyment, with synthesisers from the Electronic Dream Plant coming in all shapes and sizes. 'Very much so,' replies Adrian — 'we are going to go down market as well as up market at the same time, but the important thing is to go down market as we hope within the next two years we'll find a synthesiser around £50 dropping to around £20 in 5 years time. Not a preset organ, but a controllable synthesiser because I don't call "presets" synthesisers; it has to be controllable.
'I see synthesisers not replacing but being very much on a parallel with conventional instruments. Now that people are starting to understand them they are blending more with other instruments, because they are becoming more compatible in terms of dynamic range and emotional colour. I've even had one person from an RAF military band actually looking at the prospect of having their marching musicians all playing synthesisers!'
Having taken a little rest in the past year from music to get the Wasp off the ground, Adrian is now working on an album called 'Carousel'. He is very keen to set up his own electronic music record label, not for special 'elitist highbrow' music but for anyone that has something substantial to say in electronic music (E&MM hopes to have an electronic music competition later in the year). Electronic music is here to stay and it just needs time and more development for people in all walks of life to accept it.
Adrian sees EDP being very competitive in the immediate future and Japanese and American companies have tried to copy and bring their prices down into his bracket. 'So for once we have the opportunity to really forge ahead, making sure we do not make any mistakes and that's quite a big challenge!'
You can listen to Adrian playing the Wasp with the Spider sequencer and an excerpt of his own electronic music from his 'Disco Dream' LP on our E&MM Demo Cassette No. 2. The LP is not on general sale and Adrian is offering it to E&MM readers at £1.99 inc. post, packing and VAT. Send your cheque to 'Electronic Dream Plant (Oxford) Ltd.', (Contact Details). It's ideal for something different at discos and worth having in your electronic music collection from the listening angle alone — provided you don't mind a good strong beat and occasional girl vocals.