Archive for November, 2009

Painting #383

November 20, 2009

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painting #383

Apocalypso Trio

November 19, 2009

Apocalypso Trio @ ABC No-Rio, October 4, 2009.

Joe Burgio – movement
Shayna Dulberger – double bass, delay
Walter Wright – analog synths & video

Last stop on our Fall mini-tour. Shayna is already back in Brooklyn. Joe and I drive down from Boston to New York City. We are playing in Blaise Siwula’s series COMA (Citizens Ontological Music Agenda) at ABC No-Rio on the Lower East Side. We decide to play short, fast and loud.

The second piece is less aggressive. Shayna starts solo while I replace the battery in my amp.

The third piece is Shayna and me.

Painting #382

November 19, 2009

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painting #382

Painting #381

November 18, 2009

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painting #381

Painting #380

November 17, 2009

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painting #380

Painting #379

November 16, 2009

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painting #379

Painting #378

November 15, 2009

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painting #378

Painting #377

November 14, 2009

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painting #377

Knob Twiddling

November 13, 2009

Sun Ra said, “The Moog Synthesizer will require a different technical approach, touch and otherwise in most efforts of behavior. It is a challenge to the music scene…. The main point concerning the synthesizer is the same as in all other instruments, that is, its capacity for the projection of feeling. This will not be determined in a large degree just by the instrument itself, but always in music, by the musician who plays the instrument.”

— From the unofficial Serge Modular website.

scanimate
Computer Image Corporation’s Scanimate system, 1972

My first experience with ‘knob twiddling’ was using the Scanimate analog computer system. The main control unit allowed the video image to be broken – between raster lines – into 5 sections. Each section had separate controls for initial and final position, width, length, depth, axis, and intensity. There were potentiometers to control the duration of the ramp that ‘moved’ each section from its initial to final settings, to control oscillator frequency and amplitude, and to mix the red, green, and blue color components for each section. There were 90 plus potentiometers – with knobs – available for twiddling.

The position, size and intensity controls were set before animating the image. However the oscillator controls and various timing and mixing modules could be patched into the sectioned image in order to modify these settings. A low speed oscillator could be used to move a sectioned up and down, cause it to ‘squash and stretch’, or fade on and off. A locked oscillator could be used to bend and distort an image. A special pair of oscillators – the sine cosine oscillators – could be used to move the image in a circle or spiral.

As mentioned, normally all these controls were preset and the animation was triggered to run from start to finish – from initial to final settings. But I used the oscillators to control the image directly. I didn’t run the animation start to finish. Instead, I built the animation in real time using the oscillators and mixing functions available on the Animation Aid and through the patch panel. In this way – with a turn or twiddle of any given knob – I could modify the image in response to a change in the image or in the sound track. Depending on the amount the knob was turned and on the nature of the ‘effect’ the change in the image could be subtle – or not. Moving the frequency of an oscillator in and out of phase with vertical or horizontal sync produced dramatic changes in the image. Adjusting amplitude level produced smaller changes. Moving the red, green, blue sliders produced subtle color shifts. I discovered that I could move the image ‘to the beat’ and respond to musical phrases. I could ‘play along’ with a sound track.

I produced several ‘music videos’ on ½” reel to reel tape including Hendrix/ Joplin/Alice Cooper; Brain Salad Surgery; Central Maine Power; and Paper Shoes. Perhaps I was the first VJ!

My second experience with knob twiddling was on the Paik Abe Video Synthesizer – much different than the corporate Scanimate. It was an artists’ machine – built by an artist for artists – emotional not intellectual. The PAVS was about color – not about counting, positioning and bending raster lines. Rather than the hard-edged, cartoon color of the Scanimate, it produced gorgeous, electronic watercolor.

pavs
Paik Abe Video Synthesizer or RGB Summing Matrix

The PAVS had gain controls for the 7 video input channels. In addition each channel had a positive-negative toggle switch. There were controls for overall pedestal and gain and a large knob to affect the overall hue of the colorizer. An important Paik Abe add-on was the Wobbulator or ‘magnetic scan processor.’ Audio oscillators distorted the image vertically, horizontally and into a sort of ‘s’ curve. Of course these oscillators had potentiometers for controlling frequency and amplitude. Some of the oscillators or function generators had switches to select frequency ranges and various waveforms, and potentiometers to control waveform symmetry. The normal inputs to the PAVS were black and white video cameras used live or to ‘rescan’ images from monitors. Each monitor had potentiometers for adjusting brightness and contrast. Each camera had an adjustable zoom lens and sat on an adjustable tripod.

wobbulator
Wobbulator or Magnetic Scan Processor

There were plenty of ‘knobs’ available for twiddling.

All analog circuits and therefore systems are prone to a phenomenon called ‘drift’. The systems at Computer Image Corporation were turned on at 7am and allowed to ‘warm up’ for at least 45 minutes. Even though the studio temperature and humidity were controlled the Scanimate system tended to ‘drift’ away from its set values. The high-speed oscillators changed frequency on a whim, ruining the preset animation. Traditional animators didn’t consider this a plus. But I did!

I played these systems in real-time. I played them in situations where conditions were constantly changing – the temperature, humidity, ambient light, power fluctuations, and so on. I deliberately tuned the oscillators in relation to each other then let them drift. Drift became shading – it added subtlety and character to the effects. The image lived and breathed on screen. Sometimes, especially when using feedback, it also gasped and expired – but this too is ‘life’.

Neither the Scanimate nor the PAVS were ‘all analog’ synthesizers. Being video systems, they were hybrids. Video sync – counted down from a fixed frequency crystal – is digital. Vertical sync is always 59.54Hz, horizontal 15.732KHz, and color burst 3.58Mhz. They lacked flexibility. Scanimate was designed to do one thing – animation graphics. The PAVS was a colorizer – a closed system. However, its inputs and outputs could be reconfigured to create more flexibility creating a more open system.

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Serge Modular Music System

My first ‘all analog’ system was a Serge Modular Music System. Serge Tcherepnin designed and built the circuit boards on his kitchen table. He packaged all the parts for each module and shipped them out as kits. I assembled my own, personal system. Serge believed that the purpose of the analog synthesizer was to create new sounds – not to emulate traditional instruments – thus it had no keyboard.

How does one play the Serge? The answer is obvious – by twiddling knobs and plugging and unplugging patch cords.

“… Why analog? They [analog synthesizers] have a unique sound that varies from one manufacturer to another. Building new sounds is fun. Patching gives instant feedback (if not instant gratification), and is loaded with the pleasure of twisting smooth knobs and plugging sturdy patch cords. There is never any question of processing power, it always happens in real time. You can go deliberately for effects, or spend hours patching, looking for a magical serendipitous WOW sound. Once the sound is built you can keep tweaking it during play with dozens of knobs, the timbres and tempos becoming wonderful silly putty.”

— From the unofficial Serge Modular website.

Serge introduced a key concept in the development of analog instruments – total modularity. Other modular synthesizers separated sound signals from control voltages and from sync signals. Serge didn’t. Any output could be patched to any input. He standardized voltage-controlled inputs and outputs so that the sound of one module could be used to control a second, third or fourth module.

I paired up my voltage-controlled oscillators [VCOs], tuned them in relation to each other, and let them drift. I tuned my low frequency oscillators [LFOs] to a basic frequency and let them drift. Given that any output could be patched to any input, I tried a patching the sound output of the second oscillator in a pair back into the control parameters of the first oscillator – or into the first oscillator of a second pair. The added an element of unpredictability or risk that, coupled with the inevitable drift really added color and excitement to the resulting sounds. Knob twiddling became a source of wonder and surprise. Sometimes a simple change would move the whole performance in a new, unanticipated direction. I considered this to be a good thing. I added a variable speed tape delay to the mix and lo and behold, ‘minimal techno’.

David Jones, the engineer at the Experimental Television Center, developed his own voltage-controlled video modules including keyers, mixers, a sequencer and a colorizer. Rich Brewster, his assistant, developed a series of control modules including oscillators, ramp generators, and mixers.

The ETC video synthesizer system is still running and still has a lot of knobs.

So what happened to all those analog systems? Most people never got it – didn’t get the drift. They attached keyboards to their systems and expected them to behave like traditional instruments. But think about it … what is it that colors the sound of a traditional instrument like a flute or a guitar? They ‘drift.’ They go out of tune. Varying finger pressure or the breath adds shading to a note. The keyboard created a false expectation. An analog synthesizer isn’t a mechanical instrument like a piano or an electro-mechanical instrument like an organ. It’s a living-breathing box of circuits. Unfortunately as soon as the novelty had worn off, the traditional music programs at schools and universities moved the analog synthesizers into a closet and went back to doing things the way they always had …

“Imagine discovering an instrument that is modeled on the flow of life; that can serve as a direct extension, radiator, and articulator of a composer’s view; that embodies the collective thoughts of visualization; that beams energy to the composer’s center which transforms and reflects it into unique and ephemeral forms analogous to that center’s perspective, biases, inclinations and tendencies. Imagine that instrument. It is an electronic wave instrument, a synthesizer by whatever name it is called – Sal-Mar, Buchla, Synthi, Pinzarrone, Beck, Moog, Sekon, Tcherepnin – they all produce electric waves which offer a synthesis of perspectives, a virtual history of science and art to the real-time composer /performer who needs to continue his song and dance.”

— Ron Pelligrino in Contact Quarterly, 1978.

As I said, most people never got it, but some did!

Painting #376

November 13, 2009

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painting #376