Demos

More pedals: Analogman Chorus, Ibanez FL9 Flanger

Two new toys, err, tools arrived today… an Analogman chorus and an Ibanez flanger. Like the Roland PH-1R I mentioned in an earlier entry, they are analog stompbox effects intended for use with a guitar. Unlike the PH-1R, both of these are still in production and were bought new.

The Analogman chorus is a clone of the old Electro-Harmonix Small Clone chorus, as used by, among others, Kurt Cobain. This one is made by a boutique effects pedal builder who also wrote a great book on vintage effects. EH has since re-issued the original box using the same Small Clone name, but now they use some different chips and circuits and it allegedly doesn’t sound as good (of course) as the old version. Eh, whatever, anyway… the Analogman clone of the Clone also has some improvements over the old version, it looks purty, it’s handmade in the good old USA, and chorus is pretty much my favorite effect. So I got one even though they’re kind of expensive. It sounds great and looks cool and I love it already.

Next is an Ibanez FL9 analog flanger. It sounds nice, but it’s fairly polite and clean, and so far hasn’t grabbed me by the throat and yelled “Keep me!” However, it’s important to remember that an effect that sounds very distinctive and noticeable and cool will also usually grow old very very fast when you use it too much, and in some cases if the effect is dramatic enough, too much can equal “twice”. So we’ll see how this one fares through the recording process, how much it gets used, and what it gets used for before deciding whether or not to sell it on. Also important, just like using a synth, it can sometimes take a while to find an effect’s sweet spot. But, sometimes you never find a spot you like within its settings, so eventually you trade it for something else. The most important thing the FL9 will need to do to stay around is find some way to distinguish itself from the digital flanger models we have in the Kurzweil KSP8 and some of our plugins, because currently my impression is that it’s lacking the distinctive character necessary for me to go out of my way to use it.

Ibanez FL9 Flanger demos on Nord Modular synth sounds with some Line 6 Echo Park delay:

FL9 on Lead Synth. Dry, then progressively more and faster flange.
FL9 on Bass Synth. Dry, then progressively more and faster flange.
FL9 on Pad Synth . Dry, then progressively more and faster flange.

You can make flangers sound more dramatic by adding some distortion before the effect. I didn’t do that in these demos, but will experiment with that some more as we record things.

Chorus and flanger are both delay based effects, and are closely related circuit-wise. Chorus is generally used to thicken up a part by adding a short modulated delay or delays to a sound to make it sound like multiple instruments — a chorus of instruments — are playing. A flanger also thickens things up, but is stereotypically used as sort of a special effect: the jet plane whoooosh you hear on a lot of late 60’s and early 70’s music is often a flanger (though sometimes a phaser, as mentioned in an earlier entry). Like a chorus effect, a flanger also works by adding a short delay and modulating it, and you can in fact often make a chorus-like sound using a flanger pedal by setting it on less extreme settings. The flanger effect was invented by the Abbey Road engineers while recording a Beatles album; they played back multiple copies of the same take on the tape reels, and manually slowed one of them down a bit by pressing on the reel with their finger. Later, both chorus and flanger effects were implemented in an analog circuit fashion by using BBD delay chips. These chips have recently gone out of production, and the only currently made mass produced substitutes are some allegedly noisier and inferior chips cranked out from China, which is why many people prefer either older versions of these pedals or smaller run boutique versions that use hoarded remnants of the old chip stocks.

So why are we using guitar pedals for our synthesizer based music? Shouldn’t we be using, uh, synthesizer pedals? Well we would, but nobody makes synthesizer effects pedals. Most synth players use multi-effects processors, which do everything in one box, which is cool, but not always distinctive. You often end up with a jack of all trades, master of none type device. The latest crisp, clean, digital based models always sound great, but also somehow lack… something. Since we are limiting ourselves to using just one synth for this project (the previously mentioned Nord Modular), we decided we would try to get some more variety in our sounds by using a bunch of unique and/or weird effects that have a distinctive character of their own. Since most of those types of effects are currently made for guitarists in the form of pedals, that’s what we’re going to use. We will still be using some rack based effects when they offer a cooler or more controllable alternative than pedals, such as in the case of analog filters, some types of delay based effects, and reverb. But we’ll also be experimenting with stringing together a bunch of random guitar pedals that weren’t designed for our synths and see what happens.

That brings us to the question of whether or not you can even safely use a guitar pedal with a synthesizer. Keyboards run at line level with low impedance, the pedal expects a guitar type signal with higher impedance. We will talk about this more in a later entry, and I am not an expert so don’t take my word for it… but for now, the short answer is yes, as long as you are careful with your volume levels going into the pedal (it most likely expects a lower level than you will be sending into it), and as long as it sounds good to you coming out of the pedal, you’re okay with just plugging in the stompbox directly after your synth just like you would a rack effect. The longer answer involves buying some extra equipment when just plugging it in doesn’t sound good, but we’ll talk about that another time.

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Roland TR-606, TR-808, TR-909

The original ambient slowburn set was all Nord Modular, with no drum samples or sounds. We wrote it this way because we wanted to play at the Center Camp Cafe, which is sort of an informal social hub of the Burning Man festival where a lot of people tend to hang around, and the Cafe specifically asked us not to use any drum machines. Without getting into boring detail, there’s a lot of dance music at Burning Man playing 24/7, and a lot of people who get sick of that real fast, and even though our music has always been intended for listening rather than dancing, when people hear certain drum sounds they associate it with certain bad and boring music that we again won’t go into detail about. The Center Camp Cafe wanted to be a safe haven from those omnipresent and ever pounding beats, and so they basically told us flat out that we could only play there if we ditched the drum machines. At first I was a little taken aback by the request, because I have a healthy ego and can in fact be an arrogant schmuck about music related things sometimes (I think my initial gut reaction was something along the lines of “YOU want ME to re-write all of MY music that I’VE spent years creating just so I can play MY music the way YOU like it? What do you think I am, a glorified jukebox?”). But, I quickly realized that yes, I actually did want to play there enough to re-write everything and that it would actually be a really great excuse to do so. And hey, some of my best friends are jukeboxes…

Anyway, I am getting distracted from the topic of drum machines… in short, we did re-write everything, we didn’t use any drum machines, and the live set actually got noticeably better for it. One of the nasty secrets of making electronic music is that you can write some really mediocre music and when you put a beat behind it, it still ends up sounding pretty damn good. This is particularly true if you use either of two of the machines pictured above: the Roland TR-808 and TR-909. The 808 has been a defining drum sound in hip hop, from old school to present day, as well as electro and pop and everything in between. The 909 is, was, and will continue to be the defining drum sound in electronic techno and house music, there simply is no other substitute other than… samples of the 909. Basically, the sounds these two machines make are so familiar, and so ingrained in the subconscious of many an electronic music lover after having heard them pounding out beats for eight or twelve hours at a stretch long into the night and through to the next morning, that you can get away with murder as long as they sit there banging away and doing their thing behind the rest of your crappy song. Take them away, and you have to work a lot harder to write something that will interest people for an extended period of time.

So, in the end it turned out to be a good thing that we were forced to leave them behind, and focus instead on the melodic and textural aspects of the music. Even just the process of re-working our old songs into a new style was good for us, but I still think taking away the crutch of beats was the real key. Once we got back from the craziness of Nevada though, and started looking for other places to play this set, we had a thought: now that we had music that sounded good even without drums, hey, maybe it would sound even better if we then put them back in? And so that’s what we did, and it did in fact sound even better with the drums back in, which was great.

For this studio recording, we are going to try to balance the two extremes, and use drums in some parts and leave them out in others. This album is definitely intended to be a kick back on the couch and space out sort of experience, and not a party all night dancefloor packer. The beats will most often kick in to accentuate the building and releasing of tension, and they will all be heavily processed by external effects equipment much like the synth sounds will be. We will be exclusively using the three drum machines above: the 808, the 909, and their little brother the 606. We will also limit ourselves to sequencing them using only their internal sequencers, and we will resist the urge to sample and re-process them. So there will be no fancy computer tricks, just basic old school patterns and sounds made by quirky old analog drum machines.

Perhaps the best thing about these drum boxes is that beyond just sounding great, and they do sound great, they are really easy to use and just flat out fun to play around with. Hopefully they will be able to add some of their magic to the slowburn recording process.

Drum machine demos:

TR-606 Drum Loop. Dry, then through Frostwave Funkaduck filter, then through Frostwave + Roland PH-1R phaser, then Frostwave + PH-1R + Line 6 Echo Park delay. Meant to use a distortion for one of the stages, but I forgot…

TR-808 Drum Loop. Dry, then through Culture Vulture distortion, then through CV + Moogerfooger Phaser, then through CV + Phaser + Moogerfooger delay. Infamous cowbell included…

TR-909 Drum Loop. Dry, then through Moogerfooger Murf overloading the input only, then through the Murf overloading and also with the filters mixed in a bit, then through Murf + Mutronics Mutator + Moogerfooger delay. Meant to use the Sherman Filterbank on this one but I spaced…

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Boss PH-1R Phaser

A new toy from ebay arrived today, an old analog Boss Phaser. Boss is the guitar effects division of Roland, who released several phaser effects in the 70’s under the Roland name, but then decided to switch them over to the Boss brand when the pedals got smaller and cheaper. The oldest Roland branded ones are now very expensive and collectible, and so far I have successfully resisted purchasing any of them, but early Boss pedals can be bought for a reasonable price (around $100) and contain lovely analog circuitry presumably based on the same Roland designs.

You can read more about phasers on here, but note that when an effect is called a “phaser” that usually refers to the all-pass filter version described there, while the time-delay version they describe is almost always called a “flanger”. The two effects can sound similar on certain settings, but the methods they use to accomplish their effects, and the resulting circuits and devices that implement them, are completely different. Without getting into a technical description of what a phaser does, it imparts a sort of psychedelic, moving, whooshing character on a sound that can give it a sort of 3-D feel in the proper listening environment and/or state of mind. We plan on using a lot of phasers for this project, in most cases very subtly so you can hardly hear the effect, but also sometimes in a very much over the top fashion that will scream phaser.

This particular model (the PH-1R) is distinguished from the first compact pedal version that Boss released (the PH-1) in that it has an extra knob to control resonance, and more control is almost always a good thing. The next version (PH-2) added an extra knob/switch to control the type of phasing, but from reviews the general consensus seems to be that the basic sound of the PH-1R is “better” so I got that one instead. More control is still a good thing, but not if you have to sacrifice the basic sound to get it, especially when you are talking about one effect pedal with a specific purpose. The latest version (PH-3) is a digitally modeled phaser and that one apparently doesn’t sound all that great if you are a fan of the smooth analog sound, which I am. I might buy a PH-2 off ebay and compare it with the PH-1R for myself, but I probably won’t bother since the PH-1R sounds great, and I already have several other phasers.

These audio demos contain five snippets each. First, the unprocessed sound. Then all knobs at 3 o’clock, then all knobs at 6 o’clock, then all knobs at 9 o’clock, then all knobs maxed. These are not the best demos because it basically treats the pedal like it has one knob, going from light to extreme. In reality you would want to find the sweet spot for each of the three knobs so that you could get, for instance, a slow but deep and resonant phase, or a faster but shallow and medium resonant phase, etc. The demos do however let you hear the general character of the effect. All parts are Nord Modular, and also include a light delay effect from the Line 6 Echo Park.

demo #1: PH-1R phaser on a lead part
demo #2: PH-1R phaser on a bass part
demo #3: PH-1R phaser on a noise part
demo #4: PH-1R phaser on a pad-like part

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Patching together a tube echo

This is my attempt at patching together a tube echo device, using a Line 6 Echo Park (for the delay), a Thermionics Culture Vulture (tube/valve distortion), a Mutronics Mutator (lowpass filter), a Tapco mixer, and a Neutrik patchbay.

Old school dub producers would create delay feedback loops like this using the send and return busses on their mixers. The Tapco doesn’t have sends and returns, so I improvised by splitting the left and right side of the stereo mixer bus into original and delay lines, and used panning instead of sends to control the amount of echo. The end result is a mono delay with a feedback loop that includes distortion and filter processing, so that as the sound keeps echoing it gets progressively darker (filtered) and warmer/fuzzier (distorted), which gives you the sort of retro feel you get from old tape and tube delay/echo boxes.

The Echo Park actually already has a digital model of this type of effect, but I wanted to see if I could do it better! By doing it this way, I also have a lot more control over the final sound, as I can control the amount of filtering and distortion that happens to each echo. I can also use this same setup and patch in different effects, so that the delays progressively get more phaser or flanger or whatever on them as they echo on and on and on…

Anyway, here’s how it is set up:

The original sound comes in via input 1 on the Tapco in mono. This is the external input to the system.

The left side of the Tapco’s main stereo output goes to the main mixing board, where it’s recorded and/or played over the monitors. This is the external output from the system.

The right side of the Tapco’s main stereo output is connected to the delay feedback loop, which starts with the Echo Park, then continues through the Mutator filter, then through the Culture Vulture valves.

The feedback loop comes back in via input 2 on the Tapco in mono.

A delay effect has two primary parameters: delay amount, and feedback amount. The delay amount determines how loud of an echo you get compared to the original signal. The feedback amount determines how many echo repeats you will get, the more feedback the more times you will hear the echo repeat itself.

With this setup, the amount of delay sent to the loop is controlled by panning the original signal on Tapco input 1. Panning hard left results in the signal going straight out the left main output without any signal reaching the delay loop. As you start panning input 1 towards the middle and right, more signal gets sent to the loop resulting in a louder delay.

The amount of delay feedback is controlled by panning the delay loop signal coming into Tapco input 2. Panning hard left results in no feedback, as the processed signal is only sent out the left main output. As you start panning input 2 towards the middle and right, you get more feedback, too much if you aren’t careful, which can result in distortion at the mixer input.

The gain level of input 2, and the various settings of the processors in the effects loop, will also have an effect on the feedback level.

Within the feedback loop, I have the Echo Park set to do a basic simple digital delay with no feedback. The lowpass filter of the Mutator is set so that it lops off some of the higher parts of the sound, resulting in darker echoes. The Culture Vulture is set so that it warms up the sound a bit, but doesn’t distort. By changing the settings on any of these devices, the feedback loop and the resulting echo effect can get much more complicated and/or chaotic.

Here are some examples of how it sounds:

demo #1: dry unprocessed sound
demo #2: tube echoed
demo #3: lots of feedback
demo #4: heavy feedback and some distortion

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