Musical Electronics Library

Auckland, New Zealand


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Ciat-Lonbarde: Post-70s Electronics

How do I start explaining about the truly un-credible world and works of Ciat-Lonbarde? I don’t think I can do this justice, but I’ll try to scratch the surface.

Ciat-Lonbarde is a company run by Peter Blasser of Baltimore, Maryland, USA. He makes and sells electronic musical instruments with beautiful, handmade wooden cases, and unusual, touch-sensitive controls.

Sidrassi Organus

The Ciat-Lonbarde website is bewildering. There’s a lot of made-up language: mido, sandrodes, din datin dudero. My favourite is the “Spesal Cuck”, which is a control that makes a power-supply fluctuate up and down — voltage-controlled power-starvation. The site is also a labyrinth. He doesn’t seem to delete any old info — it’s all in there, stretching back several years, but most of this material is only revealed by a google search.

Blasser’s view of electronics is richly metaphorical and not normal. For example, the Plumbutter is conceptualised as “a modern (utopian) city, with factories as the downtown, and a wide swath of organoform, but matricized suburbs, leading to wilde woods.” If you want to read something, look at the technical papers for the Plumbutter and watch your own eyes bug out. But this strangeness is the work of a seriously skilled, inventive, brilliant designer.

Ciat-Lonbarde circuits are unique, utilising paradoxical feedback and the touch-weaving of complex paths, to create strident, chaotic sounds as well as tender, shy sounds. The Plumbutter, for example, emits organic bursts and pulses of noise, fluttery drones, subtle pocks of percussion, and storms of moans.

As well as selling instruments, Blasser also releases free DIY projects in paper circuit form. The circuit pattern is printed out, folded and glued to thin cardboard, and punched with a needle. Components are then inserted, their leads woven together and soldered to create the complete circuit. I recommend starting with the Lil Sidrassi, which explains the process and shows what all the symbols mean. Peter describes the Lil Sid as “a very touchable bee motorcycle sound maker box”. The design can be customised — several of the capacitor values are deliberately left up to the builder, so that each box will be unique. We currently have two Lil Sids in the MEL collection, each with it’s own character. They are called “Ricko Studio 1 and 2”, in memory of our friend Richard Neave.

If you really get into the paper circuits, Blasser has published full instructions to build the Rollz-5, which is a “drum and drama machine”, and the ancestor of the Plumbutter. The Rollz is a big project, I won’t kid you. I’m just finishing mine and it took me a long time. It sounds unlike anything I’ve ever heard. It sounds like a kind of electronic music that hasn’t existed before, that’s fresh and exciting, exotic and strange, but drawing on the familiar raw roots of analogue synthesis. Peter calls it “Post-70s electronics”.

Listen

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Handmade Electronic Music

The book that inspired the Musical Electronics Library: “Handmade Electronic Music” by Nicolas Collins.

This book is SO GREAT. It assumes no technical knowledge whatsoever. It starts out with a lot of fun projects that don’t even require soldering, such as playing the insides of a transistor radio with your fingers. There are so many good ideas here, like the Matrix Mixer, which doesn’t require power, and is perfect for turning a pile of innocuous guitar pedals into a complex, chaotic feedback oscillator. Most of the things in the book are analogue sound generators, but there are also ideas for computer controllers, eg. using hacked joysticks, and some video circuits. The emphasis is on adventurous, bold hacking and circuit bending, with a generous helping of from-scratch DIY electronics as well. The tone is always encouraging, which makes it a pleasure to read. There is a minimum of theory.

The second edition includes a DVD, which has video tutorials:

audio examples, and, best of all, a long series of 1-minute video clips submitted by hardware hackers around the world, showing off their amazing creations:

Nicolas Collins has generously shared the pdf file of his original workshop manual Hardware Hacking, upon which Handmade Electronic Music is based.


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Why VHS tape boxes make good electronics enclosures

A library of electronics could potentially take up a lot of space. If the circuits were built like guitar pedals, ie. hardware on top and sides, they wouldn’t store very compactly. Again inspired by the Nic Collins book “Handmade Electronic Music”, I decided to use VHS tape boxes to house most of the library circuits. There are a lot of good reasons to use these boxes. They are cheap, widely available, lightweight, fairly robust, and easy to drill. They have a clear-plastic outer pocket to hold artwork and labels, and they’re easy to open for battery change. The spines are wide enough that controls can be mounted there, so the majority of boxes can be stored spine-out on a shelf — like books — saving space. They have heavy kitsch/nostalgia value:

ringwald

The main problem with VHS cases is that they aren’t super strong. You can’t really use them as guitar stomp-boxes, which require expensive, heavy-duty aluminium boxes with rugged footswitches. If you stomp on a video case it will squash. So, most of the MEL collection will be suitable for table-top use, rather than on the floor for guitarists. A library with lots of money and storage space could build things in metal enclosures, but this is not an option for us at the moment.

Other drawbacks of using these boxes:

1) Lack of screening from radio interference. Possible solutions: Line inside of box with tin-foil/metal tape/conductive paint.

2) Nothing to hold battery in place. Possible solutions: Metal clip, velcro.

One caveat about using VHS cases is that they aren’t all the same. Boxes from the early 1980s were made of thick black plastic and are really tough. From the late 80s onward they were made of thinner plastic. This is not a huge problem, but I’ve tried to get as many of the stronger ones as possible. As a bonus the actual magnetic tape in early 80s videos has a measurable resistance, so you can use it to make a long, flat variable resistor — good for controlling an oscillator. More about that in a future post.