Electronic music, for me, started in September 1978, when I sent off for a set of printed circuit boards and circuit diagrams for the Practical Electronics Sound Synthesiser. At the time it was a big jump into electronics for me as I had built practically nothing electronic up until then, the exceptions being the usual baby alarms, MW radios etc.
In some ways the choice of the PE Synthesiser was a mistake since it had really been designed for a more advanced electromusician than me. However, I bravely sent off a large order for components and a keyboard (optimistic?) to a then non-computerised Maplin Electronics and set about building the synth.
By Christmas the keyboard, VCOs and VCAs were working as well as my technical skill allowed. The envelope shapers refused to work and so I ended up adapting a completely separate design. Interest in construction of the rest of the synth quickly waned once it was making sounds and it took a year for the rest of the synth to be finished. Amongst the lessons to be learnt from this first experiment of mine in electromusic was never to skimp on components. I used 5% resistors throughout and the cheapest capacitors I could find for each value. The result was that the oscillators would not stay in tune for longer than ten minutes at a time, the keyboard did not remember too well (sample and droop), and the output was to say the least, noisy.
By the following Summer things had really got moving on the electronics front and I built the PE String Machine, followed later that year by the Powertran Transcendent 2000 which I built in a day and a half. The PE Strings were sold in 1980 to buy the Transcendent DPX which I was soon fiddling around with (no pun intended) to get more sustain and chorus out in an attempt to use it as a polysynth.
When the Transcendent Polysynth was published there was only one thing stopping me from buying it straight away — the price. Undeterred, I promptly designed and threw together a polysynth which although having a totally polyphonic keyboard, had an eight-note assigned filter and envelope shaper bank. The sound is, to say the least, impressive even though it cost less than the Transcendent DPX or 2000 to build. The DPX was quickly moved off its stand into the corner to be replaced by the new polysynth.
By that time I began to get fed up with bouncing tracks between two cheap cassette recorders, but after looking through the Exchange and Mart for several weeks in succession, I gave up looking for a cheap multi-track thinking that I would never be able to afford even a decent two-track. It was then that a friend of mine found a studio selling a broken TEAC 3340S cheap — very cheap. Being in a 'permanent on-going off-going mode situation', it didn't work, but several weeks part-time work later, I took a chance on being able to fix it and so bought it. Half an hours work and a 15p resistor later I had an 'as new' TEAC 4-track tape-recorder.
In my home studio at the moment, the keyboards comprise the Transcendent 2000, and DPX, which I still use for the strings, the polysynth, the Phoenix 8 and a two oscillator monosynth which I have recently designed and built which has taken over from the 2000 for most lead work. This new synth, named the Phoenix 2, looks strangely like the Prophet 5 but there the similarity ends. All the switching is pushbutton latching and plenty of small LEDs give it that impressive look.
Effects include a stereo flanger/phaser adapted from the Maplin 5600S and a Maplin spring line reverb and driver all in a 19 inch rack-mounting case. The E&MM Digital Delay is already on order and should arrive any time now. The Clef master rhythm provides all the drum sounds. Mixing at home is via a Powertran MPA100 amplifier into one of the new mega-fantastic looking JVC KD-D cassette decks which has a five-band spectrum analyser, twin VUs and PPM, four-digit tape counter, remaining time on tape calculator, track search and stop watch. (It also plays cassettes!) A recent review said that it looked slightly better than it sounded.
Amplification until recently was by the Powertran amp driving a home built cabinet, but now I use a pair of E&MM 65 watt MosFet amps into Mission 700 speakers which are also wired up to a Rega Planar Two record deck. The monitoring quality from this system is very good.
The music I have recorded myself has been almost totally electronic and I haven't done any serious recording which hasn't been direct injected into the tape recorder. All the tracks apart from the drums are put down from keyboards, mainly the two home-built synths.
Mixing, for now, is done at Goldsmiths College where I do an evening class in electronic music. There I have the use of a complete electromusic studio (which had the distinction of owning the first French Publison Pitch Transposer in the country).
Although I have tried many styles of recording, the main influence in my music seems to a form of 'disco-funk' which seems to work well with my style of playing. In fact one of my pieces has been provisionally entitled 'Disco Cliché'.
Now I am beginning to get out of the four track drums-bass-backing-lead syndrome, my music is becoming more experimental and I am trying to be less careful about precisely what I record in the first place. So I won't spend a couple of evenings working out a complete piece, then recording it, but find say, a chord sequence I like, record it, and then write a bass or harmony line while listening to the first. In this way the overall effect can be controlled more easily as I go along, maybe even re-recording the first track at some point.
The problem with this 'record it as you make it up' technique is that without a start, a middle and an end the usual result is for the music to become repetitive. Although repetition in itself is not bad (listen to Terry Riley or Mike Oldfield), it can easily become boring.
Therefore, I have developed a system whereby I record a set of tracks as I mentioned and then have a go at it with a razor blade and sticky tape, editing the four track recording, re-recording over some of the edits and generally tidying it up. This continues in the mixing process where I sometimes leave whole tracks out of the mix if the music is building up too quickly. This technique of editing individual tracks can give very interesting results, breaking up the music into a more musical form and making repeated phrases sound different.
I hope to eventually complete a 16-track mixer that can be used first in my home studio and later as part of a professional setup or mobile studio.
The actual design of the mixer will allow it to be hooked up to the proverbial 'microprocessor' although an internal processor will allow it to store a series of 'mixes' itself. During the mixdown each change in the mix is punched into the memory and on playback the processor will 'fly' the mixer through the mastering. All you have to do is hit the STEP button to go onto the next section in the mix at the right time. This method is far cheaper than the Roland Computamix idea which synchronises the mixer to a spare track on the tape recorder and the operator just sits back and lets the whole caboodle get on with the mastering or mixdown. Will the next one do the whole mixing process, one wonders?
Feature by David Pallant
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