August thrift store finds

I’ve been digging through the CDs at the Salvation Army nearby quite a bit in the last year or so. It started out as something to kill time while Amber shopped, but now I kind of enjoy trying to pick out something interesting. It’s an uphill battle against a sea of 10000 Maniacs and Maroon 5. So anyway, here’s the latest incoming class:

History of my Heart

This is the first Suzanne Ciani I’ve ever bought. I think I heard about her through my friend Jacob, but I mostly remember her from this goofy video of her on Letterman in 1980:

Two things really struck me about that clip of her and David Letterman. First, she seems strangely goofy. Maybe it was butterflies from being on national television. It sort of feels like that, now that I think about it.

The second thing that struck me, though, was the immense balls to go on national television while planning to use a Roland MC-8 as part of her demo song. The MC-8 is one of the very first digital sequencers (though not quite the first), and I’ve learned to really respect anyone that’s managed to actually produce a song on this. I bought one a few years ago, and it’s still a love/hate relationship. I think it’s a fascinating piece of equipment, but it’s just SO HARD TO USE. My friend Andrew owns and uses the MC-4, which is sort of the little brother that Roland released after the MC-8. In comparison to the MC-8, the MC-4 feels like a breeze.

Pushing one wrong sequence of buttons on the MC-8 will cause it to menacingly flash all its lights at you in a warning that you just did something wrong. Sometimes I’m able to correct my mistake, but most of the time it seems like there was really no recovery, and I just had to restart the machine.

And so with this volatile, temperamental bleeding-edge piece of technology, Suzanne Ciani went on national television and planned to perform a song with it. I guess I just figured out why she seemed so squirrelly and nervous. I’d be in even worse shape if I were trying to undertake that. Despite some initial hiccups, though, she actually managed to make the machine work. For that, she has earned my respect.

As for the CD, I’ve only listened to it once. Initial field reports are not good, though. I suppose my bar may have been artificially set too high because of the whole MC-8/Letterman thing, but I was kind of unimpressed by the generic 80s/new-age sounding tracks. I’ll put it back on in a couple weeks and give it another listen. Maybe I’ll warm up to it.

Fine China!

One of my favorite bands from high school just emerged from a +10 year hiatus and played a reunion concert. Of course, the occasion was the vinyl reissue of their last album on its ten year release anniversary.

Fine China started out way back with releases on Velvet Blue Music and Plastiq Musiq, which is how I stumbled across them. Hard to say, but this may likely have been the last concert ever. I was really glad to be in Phoenix at the right time to be able to catch up with them finally.

Fine China

Fina China

From the ashes…

About a month or so ago I picked up nine new modules from Synthesizers.com. This would be the start of essentially my first modular synthesizer. As I was looking over the different modular case options on the website, I remembered a very neglected and forlorn project from my teenage years: my initial attempt at a modular, sitting in some dusty corner of my dad’s basement.

Poor little modular

The summer after I graduated high school, I bought an old beat-up Minimoog. However, what I was really interested in were modulars. I remember talking it over with my buddy Jon (who was likely the main motivation for said modular) and we thought up a budget-friendly idea. The Minimoog has great oscillators, which are one of the costlier modules to have to buy. Jon reasoned that I could get by with using the Mini as my oscillator, and then just add a bunch of miscellaneous modules around it.

So I built a case that would wrap around the top of the Minimoog. All the modules could go inside. It was like a Minimoog expander. I built a harness of cables that plugged into various jacks on the top of the Minimoog and brought them up to jacks in one of the modules. As for the rest of the modules, my plan was to build them all using schematics that I found online. Sadly, I was and remain a bad builder of electronic circuits. I built a filter that sort of worked, for a while. Otherwise, none of the other modules ever actually worked. That didn’t stop me for screwing them in and using the whole things as a great prop. But in the end, that’s all it ever was: a prop.

Rare concert

I eventually got rid of most of the modules, and the wooden chassis was sent to a basement closet to wither away. That was until a couple months ago. After placing my order for the new modules (and spending money that I would never have spent as a high schooler), I recovered the old forlorn modular case. It was a little weathered, but it still had the power supply and the power harness that my dad helped me wire up many years ago.

Old modular case

The power harness needed a little work, though. Namely, I had only built a handful of cables to plug into individual modules. And the few existing ones had stray wires that had worked themselves loose over the years. So one Sunday morning, I set to building a bunch of new cables and tightening down the existing ones.

Modular power harness

After soldering together another half dozen power cables and checking the voltages (+15v, -15v, +5v) on the old ones, I was nearly done. On the second-to-last cable, I was doing a routine voltage check when suddenly everything came up fishy. The voltages were all wrong. Worried that I’d mis-wired something, I begin unscrewing and pulling cables out left and right. Eventually I had torn everything down until I was holding just the power supply all by itself. I checked and rechecked the voltage and slowly began to realize that, after all these years, the power supply had finally gone bad. Of course: I was within minutes of actually plugging modules in and finally getting to use this thing I conceived ten years ago.

I did a bit of reading on what sort of power supply to buy as a replacement. My original had just been a random switching power supply that I’d found laying around. I decided to copy whatever was the synthesizers.com standard issue. It took a bit of hunting around, but eventually I ordered the Power-One HCBB-75W-AG. There are a couple variations in wattage, but that seemed like a nice size in case I wanted to grow the modular into something bigger. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize that I’d just ordered a monster power supply that would dwarf the previous one. I guess this is the difference between a linear power supply versus switching. Anyway, new power supply on the left:

Power supplies

I tried to fit the new power supply into the case and realized that there was no way it would fit. I messed around with a ton of Tetris-like configurations and eventually realized that there was no way to fit the power supply into the case. So, out of the case it went. Ugly as this was, I wired up the power supply to just sit on the table behind everything. At this point, I was also realizing that my high school woodworking skills had been pretty deficient, and that it wouldn’t be such a bad thing to actually just re-build the whole modular chassis. The new version could include a better spot for installing the power supply internally. Until then, it sits on the table humming along pleasantly.

As for the modular, I eventually got everything wired up and screwed in, and it’s working better than ever. Kind of boring ending to the story: everything worked out fine and as expected. It’s been a ton of fun to have an assortment of modules above the Mini. It’s been great fun to play with this combo, and I’ve already starting to build out ideas for wings or second levels or something that will go into the next build.

Mini Modular

RIP 2014: Oberheim Matrix 12

The Matrix 12 is gone! It didn’t actually die or anything. I decided to sell it.

Matrix 12

This was my prize synth – my pride and joy! I had dreamed of owning one (or rather, an Xpander) for years and years. What happened? Basically, a few things.

With all the equipment breakdowns that I’ve had in the last year, I have started to grow a little paranoid. This Matrix 12 has always worked well for me, but I’ve heard a lot of horror stories about these things breaking down and then being difficult to repair (or even source parts for). The fact that it’s worth so much and could potentially be so fragile made it hard to sleep. I decided that I wanted to get out before any of that happened.

I also started to use the Matrix 12 less and less. During one of the bouts of the afore-mentioned equipment failures, I decided to buy a mostly-new Oberheim SEM. I picked up the version that had all the patch points on the side (although the cheapest, I think this is the handiest version). Together with the Roland MC-8 sequencer, I was really starting to enjoy CV/gate more than I have in years. I’ve got a few friends that have basically sworn off MIDI, but I wasn’t trying to go down that route at first. I figured that the MIDI stuff would just take a back seat. I even picked up an MSQ-700 sequencer to sync up to the MC-8 and keep the foot in the door for the MIDI equipment.

But with the patching potential on the SEM, and with getting the Minimoog back working and the Arp Axxe back from my friend Jon, I started to see the writing on the wall. It really just seemed a lot more fun to have some patchable equipment than to have twelve super-flexible Matrix 12 voices that were nevertheless insulated from all my other equipment. Don’t get me wrong: the Matrix 12 is a great synth. I was never unhappy with the sound. But I realized that I just wasn’t very interested in the areas where it really exceled. I didn’t really want/need twelve simultaneous voices. I didn’t really need patch memory. I just wanted a bunch more SEMs or something to play with.

So I finally sold the Matrix 12 and then promptly headed over to synthesizers.com…