Why Analogue Synths In A Digital World?

February 2, 2013 in Exclusively Analogue, The Aviator

I’m often asked why I remain firmly rooted in the past using technology from the 1970s and 1980s rather than taking the leap into the present and embracing the digital world. While you might think at my age I would enjoy nothing better than driving my car listening to classical music, heavy rock or perhaps the Bee Gees it might surprise you to know that Tiesto, the Swedish House Mafia, or a Trance compilation (played at the required high volume sufficient to get the whole car to become a bass resonator) is nearer the truth!

I know Trance is an acquired taste but what attracts me is that if you listen to most tracks you can guarantee that a lot of the sounds used are “analogue'” in origin and in particular a great deal of use is made of sweeping filters. Analogue synthesizers have been part of my life since the early 1970s when I used to listen to Keith Emerson, Rick Wakeman, Wendy Carlos, etc playing their Moog synths. I was captivated by the sound and my journey into building analogue synths began in 1977 when I built my first one, based on an article in an Electronics magazine. This synth, a Minisonic, was built whilst serving on HMS Hermes and whilst it was a basic analogue synth is could still produce some awesome sounds.

Little did I know that my passion for analogue synthesizers would take me on an incredible journey. In 1992 that same journey took me to a studio in North London where I ended up working on one of the most famous analogue synths, Keith Emerson’s huge Moog Modular. To think that 20 years earlier I had listened to this monster being used on the numerous ELP albums and there I was working on it! 20 years on from that and here I am still pursuing my passion and building analogue synthesizers again.

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Synth Apps on a phone vs The Real Thing and a new Universal Active Filter

August 2, 2012 in Exclusively Analogue, The Pioneer

It’s been a while since my last blog mainly because my ‘day job’ of flying an airliner has kept me very busy recently.

I, like so many people Worldwide, have joined the ‘Apple’ family and ended up with an iPhone and an iPad. One of the interesting things I noticed was a number of Apps (Applications) that you can get for musicians including some quite good analogue synthesizer ones. There is a very good app from Korg, that recreates the famous MS20 synthesizer, and another from Akai. Both allow you to recreate some very realistic analogue synth sounds on your iPhone/iPad. The downside however is the lack of tactility that you get from the ‘real thing’ and you are left trying to get used to finger movements on the screen and that takes time to master. It’s so much easier to just tweak a knob or switch on the real thing!!

No one has so far created an Emu Modular or Aviator app but judging by the apps I have looked at I’m sure it could be done. However, owning the real thing with the original sound and controls is, in my opinion, far better than a digital recreation. You could liken it to the difference between driving a high performance sports car in a computer game and owning the real thing. One of the main reasons is that any digital recreation with ‘analogue modelling’ can only go so far at producing the same filter characteristics. For instance the Emu Universal Active Filter (UAF) has a lot of discrete components (i.e. dual matched transistors) in it that help give it the range of filtering options available and the unique sound

I have been doing some experimentation and detective work recently with the primary aim of trying to find some alternatives for the AD820 and LM114 dual matched transistors used in the Emu UAF module. Fortunately I have now found alternatives from Linear Systems that match the characteristics of the originals so I can now build more Universal Active Filters if anyone wants them. I have done all of the work ready to produce new main and sub module circuit boards as well having the front panels already made.

The Universal Active Filter will be the first module that can be purchased separately so it can be added to existing Emu Modular systems or even to other modulars provided a suitable power source is available. Further details will be on the website shortly but if you are interested in getting a UAF just send us an email.

The picture above shows an original UAF sub module and a new one that I completed recently. In a side by side test the sound you get is identical!!

An insight in to quality and how to order a Pioneer “Tribute” system

April 1, 2012 in The Pioneer

It gives me great pleasure to announce that the first Pioneer “Tribute” system will be on it’s way to Switzerland. This now means there are only 7 more systems left for sale. If you are interested in purchasing one the necessary details are at the bottom of this post.

Ensuring quality

From the outset of the Pioneer “Tribute” project I was keen to ensure that it was a high quality product. All the components used are to equal or better specification than those used by Emu back in the 70s. In some areas there have been improvements beyond the original. One example of this is in the oak cabinet and the mounting of the individual modules. The panels are made to very exact dimensions and I have just received the mounting metalwork which has been made to the same exact standards. This means that there are no unsightly gaps between the modules and they almost blend into one!

The panels themselves are not paint on top of the aluminium but instead the ink is impregnated into the metal. The result is a much sharper finish that is resistant to scratching unlike the original panels. The oak cabinet has been made by a professional cabinet maker and is the finishing touch. I could have used Walnut, which was the wood used in most of the originals, but decided to add a British touch and I think the finish on the oak works well to highlight the modules. The rear panel, which has the power supply mounted on it, has the “Tribute Limited Edition” text and each of the 10 panels are individually engraved “Number * of 10”. I’ll have the first complete system built up in the new cabinet on Tuesday and I will post some pictures once it is done.

I have now finalised what will be in the Tribute system and added some useful modules which I’m sure people will like. The first additional module is the Lag Processor (useful for glide effects and much more). The second is the Ring Modulator which can be used to create a number of interesting effects including ‘bell type’ sounds. Lastly I have decided to include the new MultiMode filter since this adds so much to the system and complements the 24dB Low Pass filter. The MultiMode filter provides 12dB Low Pass, High Pass, Bandpass, and Notch outputs so great for the ‘buzzier’ sounds and reverse envelope sweeps. Although the MulitiMode filter is not an Emu original, they produced the Universal Active Filter, it is made to fit into the system so it doesn’t look out of place.

I’ve also decided to do a small run of the Universal Active Filters to either be added to the Tribute system (at an additional cost) or existing Emu modular systems. I will only make about 10 of these UAFs to the original 1122 specification before looking at doing a redesign to replace the obsolete components.

Ordering a Pioneer “Tribute” system

The 7 remaining Pioneer ‘Tribute’ systems are now available to be purchased for a total cost of £4000 per system (plus shipping). Each system is individually built and can be customised slightly to the buyers requirement. A £500 deposit is required to secure a system with the remaining balance (plus shipping) being payable before delivery. If you are interested please use the “Contact Us” section of this website to get in touch.

Our tribute to the Emu Modular

March 11, 2012 in Exclusively Analogue, The Pioneer

It’s great to be back in the Analogue Synth world again after the long break due to a busy few years at work flying airliners. Now I have some time available and I can get back into doing what I enjoy.

I had always planned to sort out the Emu modular parts, (mainly a collection of sub modules) that I had from the 90s but never thought I would go so far as recreating a complete Emu modular system!

So how did it all start? Back in 1992 I was offered a modular system by a pawn shop in Madison Wisconsin who had had the system for 8 years with no one knowing what to do with it. They couldn’t tell me much about it other than it had aluminium front panels and it sounded like someone’s home built. I bought it unseen mainly out of curiosity and when it arrived I was gobsmacked. Here was one of the best looking modulars I had ever seen in a beautiful walnut cabinet and in flight cases. A definite bargain especially when I plugged it in and found that it was fully working!

It turned out that it was a very rare Emu modular system and in no time at all a shop in London made me an offer I couldn’t refuse with the system eventually ending up in a synth museum. I subsequently managed to buy a home built system based on Emu submodules but mounted on poor quality PCBs and with grey dull looking front panels. After a lengthy phone call to Emu I acquired a box full of parts, unused PCBs and submodules, which I planned to use to build up another system. Time just wasn’t available to complete the project until now!

It has taken ages to completely redo all the printed circuit boards, source the rare original parts, and complete the artwork for the front panels but I think it has been worth it. I now have my own system looking as good as, if not slightly better than, the original and because it uses the same 1970s technology it has the same sound.

The 8 Pioneer ‘Tribute’ modular systems that I am making available are all that I am going to do mainly because of the difficulty in getting some of the rarer parts for the original circuitry. Each one will be built to order and to the highest quality just like the Emu team did back in the 70s. You might like to read a bit of history behind the Emu modular systems in the interview with Dave Rossum; www.siliconbreakdown.com/rossum_interview.htm

 

The proposed ‘Pioneer’ system will be a redesigned version of the ‘Tribute’ utilising modern and more readily available parts but still maintaining the original look. The first Pioneer module will be the Multimode filter which is already at the prototype stage and fitted in my system.

Well it’s back to the soldering iron and building a couple of Transient Generators today but I will provide some regular updates so keep watching the progress and as a quick thank you; I’m indebted to Rob Keeble of AMS and Senso of Vintage Planet for their help.