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Forget the notion that new technologies replace old, that design is a steady progression from past to future. Think, instead, of music – variations on a theme, modernity made from the spare parts of the past.

Latvia may be eager to shed its Soviet past, and with good reason. But part of the legacy left behind is a history and expertise in engineering. Rīga, the Latvian capital in this Baltic country, was home to the mighty RMIF synth company and Blue Microphones, among others. The economic strain of the Soviet union sometimes required these makers to be even more ingenious in finding electronics solutions; the respect they’ve earned in the West isn’t mere exoticism – it’s real electronics cred, and well earned.

Erica Synths is a boutique maker built at the juncture between Latvia’s maker past and its present and future. Some parts, and even engineering, come from RMIF veterans. You’ll find vintage tubes and Polivoks op-amps (the circular objects in one of my photos here). And then you’ll also find new suppliers and hints of the future – yes, MIDI, and yes, you’ll spot a display prototype. (I can’t share what that’s about, but maybe you can guess.)

What might surprise you is that the so-called “vintage” parts are being made anew. Look at those beautiful glass tubes, and you’ll see Made in China, or – check my photo – Made in the USA. (As noted in comments, that indication may mean this is a vintage tube. China, at least, is making new ones, actively in production and rolling off the assembly line.) Other companies continue to make new former-Soviet Polivoks components. And apparently demand for these components stays high. It’s been highly-publicized that film stock – Kodachrome, Polaroid – has gone out of production. But what has failed to make news is the fact that a lot of these other components live on.

The upshot of all of this is you get to enjoy new music gear that blends past and future into a heady brew of something you can use right now. The modular format itself is a good example: Erica has gotten into the Eurorack business, itself fueled by demand from people born in the age of digital and computers who want futuristic sounds – in a vintage modular format. Continue reading »

radiothing

Once upon a time, musicians made music from the sound content pouring invisibly, inaudibly from the air. The likes of John Cage and Kalrheinz Stockhausen turned the radio into stochastic source and instrument, a means of making music in the now.

And now, you can, too, in the latest Eurorack module.

Whether you want a modular or not, this is one module you definitely don’t need. You don’t need to act out Cage-ian fantasies and turn your local hit FM station greatest tracks of the 80s and 90s into an experimental noise performance. Nor do you really need to understand the workings of Eurorack by building your own DIY module. But you can.

And the man who made the DIY project is none other than Tom Whitwell, the one-time music tech blogger who used to trade shots with CDM at Music thing, but has now found a much more enjoyable path making new Eurorack modules (among other worthwhile activities).

Music Thing Modular Radio Music Prototype from Tom Whitwell on Vimeo.

The beginnings of this project can be found in a guest piece Tom wrote for CDM in the heady days of 2012. There, he was already on to the notion of building a radio sequencer – and, in the process, teaching you how to make your own modules.

Now, the piece is fully fleshed out and documented. There are copious instructions, so that this might even be your first electronics piece. You can delve into the history of the music that inspired it, then grab a soldering iron and start making your own history. Continue reading »

Not just a little small and a little inexpensive. A lot little.

Malaventura, aka Fernando Garcia Tamajon, sends this wonderful “cheesy pocket techno jam” (spotted via Instagram).

The ingredients:

a PO-14 from teenage engineering, a monotron Delay from Korg and a talking translator by an unknown brand bought in a fleamarketn

Works for me. There’s something about things being small, self-contained, simple … that can be inspiring. For all those years of people derisively calling things “toys,” sometimes toys are exactly what we need. I love that mystery gear, too.

Well, we might have tried to give that honor to something before (McRorie, Hatebeak the parrot), but… this might top it.

There’s just so much. The vacant, turned-on stare of that curly-haired guy. The glowing alligator. The KORG 01/W – oh, that KORG. KORG will never make a keyboard demo quite like this. The script…

Do you know anything about techno?

Watch.

Now, does anyone know what the Hell this is, anyway? Answer: Why, it’s 1996′s Vibrations – and yes, that is Christina Applegate. Which means… uh, actually, they probably should have know something about techno but didn’t but who cares?

And thank you, BLN.fm. Whatever happened on this Thursday, this video has now happened to us. (Yes, aware this probably happened to you sooner since you have The Internet, but … well, it reached us late. Much later than 1996, let’s say.)

Also, don’t miss the Trap remix… Continue reading »

shapednoise

In the overabundant parade of mixes, you might easily grow weary of the sound-alike monotony of predictably-popular hits inserted back to back in a party-friendly groove.

This is not that.

The latest from Shapednoise is a mix for FACT that follows in a mold only in that it’s as violently depressing as you’d expect if you’d been following this artist. You know, depressing in a … stimulating way.

Shapednoise begins by dropping you out an airlock for a zero-gravity dance of archaic tribal rituals. And from there, things more or less descend into an angry, room-clearing procession of reverbs and distortion. This is the sound of alien machinery screaming a siren song as it dies, then finally entering a dizzying forward rhythm. Continue reading »

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The electronic musical instrument world is littered with cases of one person, individually solving a problem. This one gets even more specific. There’s some beloved MIDI gear out there that’s just a bear to program. Yes, you can use various knob boxes – but because some of the programming requires archaic System Exclusive messages, prepare yourself for some work.

The Stereoping device adds knobs and custom firmware for that hardware. Amusingly, the product is available as a kit, but maybe that’s perfect – you spend a bit of cash and devote that time to the soothing task of soldering rather than the hateful task of mucking about with old SysEx commands. Frankly, it looks like a fun build. Being able to work on the JX-8P alone could make you happily cough up the change. (Pre-assembled versions are planned.)

The video series Electronic Beats caught up with the creator, a one-man shop in Germany. Call it a documentary on a labor of love.

I have to admit I’d never seen these before. Devices it supports – in case you were wondering: Continue reading »

Seze Devres Photography NYC www.sdphotography.net

You know you’re at peak modular when Moog is reissuing 1970s synths for US$30,000.

It wasn’t long ago that people were relegating modular synths to closets, selling them off, and even – really – throwing them in dumpsters. Now, the once-archaic racks of synthesizers connected with patch cords are suddenly cool. Moog rockstar chic aside, the trend is mainly driven by Eurorack, a format introduced years ago by Doepfer that has made it easier to manufacture and buy interchangeable rigs.

Moog is making only a handful of those System 55 rigs, so even they acknowledge you probably can’t afford them. Let’s focus instead on the stuff that musicians might actually buy. And there’s a lot — too much to handle, even. So rather than clog CDM with a zillion stories on each new module that came out, I’ve been quietly keeping notes and talking to those in the know to give you a rough field guide to the best new modular gear. (I’m sure I’ve missed some, because there’s just so much, but this should give an approximation.)

Most of this equipment debuted at California’s NAMM – expect still more to pop up between now and Musikmesse, the German (and European) answer to the US trade show.

Is all of it equally useful? Absolutely not. There’s an enormous fetish factor to modular, and it’s clear that the market is partly driven by a core of enthusiasts – not everything here would, or should, appeal to larger audiences. But if anything, modular is about taste – about what you like, what you value in sound design, and the precise combination of tools you’d most like to have. That customization and flexibility is appealing, and so I’ll be frank about my own opinions – and, I think, point out the places where these offerings give you the most choice.

And even if you’re resisting the pull of modular, I think it’s worth doing this sort of review just to see the state of design. Those trends can well apply to the desktop software, app, standalone hardware, and DIY/patching scenes, too – there can be inspiration in any format.

Let’s have a look and start the discussion (slash debate). Continue reading »