Here’s a video I made with my favourite out of the blue Christmas surprise last year, which I’ve been intending to repost for some time (FB vid-compression is brutal).

It’s meant as a big thank you to my friend Graham, for giving it to me – and thus reminding me about the reason I got into electronics in the first place (pure pleasure). It’s a funny thing when you go through the whole cycle from ignorant but gleeful amateur, to expert professional, to disillusioned, cynical and finally obsolete. Discarded bath-waters containing babies are a situational commonplace, to be sure! ;o)

Plus – there’s also a big thank you to my friend Nada in here as well – for getting me adventuring and helping me challenge my limits and preconceptions. As commercial as Ripley’s may outwardly seem – their educational focus is truly superb, and the impact on young minds, powerful, and ecologically crucial (we have to feel nature, not just think-it – if we’re going to sacrifice adequately to save even a significant fraction of it).

This is not – I must note, a serious composition. Improvising for an hour or so – but having a ton of fun doing it – quite literally laughing with pleasure about the range of voices and expression available, in such a simple box.

Funny thing about playing music without a keyboard (just those thirteen tiny black momentary microswitches along the bottom) – it put one of my old favourite gripes in a whole new light.

I love synthesizers – but I hate hate HATE when they are used to replace several instruments that should be present in a band (horn players need to work too, folks). Despite my abhorrence for this ever more common erosion of well-paid gigs in the music industry (especially recording for commercials and TV), I’ve stayed very curious about how and where it does and doesn’t work.

Just because you dislike something – that doesn’t mean it’s easy! In fact, the only people I ever found who could make a synthesizer sound just like a particular horn, were themselves also skilled players of that very same horn. So in a way, the only person you can really hire to put twenty instrumentalists out of work, is an out of work person who can play twenty instruments!

What I love is when synths are synths – exuberantly-not anything else at all! Wendy Carlos, Keith Emerson and Laurie Anderson are all genius stand-outs, here, and infinitely re-listenable, because of it. (go listen to the solo from “Tarkus” again – still yowza after all these years!)

I did plenty of work on digital machines as a tech, but as a synth guy, I’m all rusty-analog. This means I’m used to having access to a keyboard, octave shifting, note-bending, and a rudimentary sequencer. All absent, here.

But you know the left-field skill-set that came to my rescue? Video-gaming! Turns out that years of button mashing combat and platform jumping have trained my spastic fingers to simulate my favourite sequencer effects as if they were a boss-level! Like I say – I did a lot of giggling, while making this.

Try full-screen – for complete immersion!

The Werkstatt-01 really is a minimal synthesizer instrument – designed that way deliberately, for a MOOG conference a few years ago, so that everyone there would have something interesting to play with, experiment upon and discuss.

There is no keyboard – just that row of tiny momentary microswitches at the bottom – there isn’t even a ‘stop’ on the tuning potentiometer – making it closer in some ways to a slide-whistle or trombone than a piano.

BUT – they didn’t produce this design to ‘address a market segment’ – as is required of almost all tech products nowadays – in order to ‘responsibly’ allocate the necessary development capital. They made this thing simply to celebrate how much they loved synths, with a group of people who were coming from far and wide, because they felt the same.

Along the right edge of the critter, you will see a plug-board which allows “Breakouts” from the circuit board, so that signals can be combined, fed-back and generally played-with (so much wide-open freedom, that if you make enough really stupid patching choices, you can indeed fry the thing) ;o)

Not only did they allow extreme access to the waveforms at many stages of processing, they also made each one of the pared-down kit of synth elements superb. Two waveforms only – but both big fat-oscillator sounds – the filter and envelope also have superbly musical characteristics.

You would think these would be something everyone would want (true) and everyone would therefore simply achieve by careful design (false). There are a great many subtle characteristics in anything frequency-responsive, and even when we are shown similar numbers as specs, we can hear the difference of these harder to measure properties quite easily, as quality.

Similarly – a lot of modern speaker systems will deliver ‘bottom end’ – but if you always want to tell and feel the difference between the bass and the kick-drum, you’re suddenly looking at a very tiny subset only. ;o)

The final takeaway from this one (for my circuitry and entrepreneurial friends both) is that by designing this small unpretentious and even potentially self-destructing unit for cleverness and delight alone, they ended up creating an unexpected hit – and the beast – intended entirely as a ‘one-off’ physical lecture-note – remains in production today (by demand).

When I went back to George Brown to add video knowledge, six years after studying audio there – I was blown away to find that some of the students were still passing around photocopies of my notes. I was meticulous (these were distilled notes, ultra clear and yet super-dense), but it also surprised me to find that the video teachers all remembered me from the other (audio) side of the lab – because I was so ‘into it’ – and genuine enthusiasm and energy is a pleasure for any teacher. Reminds them, why they got into that!

Same principle all through, really. If you address a subject properly, you open a conversation that keeps going with it’s own inertia. (And spontaneously generates an organic fan-base that drives growth in interest and versatility of application, with no further inputs required from the instigator, whatsoever).

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