I'm now documenting a few DIY modular synth projects over at musicthing.co.uk/modular/ including this random sequencer, inspired by vintage and modern random sequencers like the Triadex Muse, Don Buchla's 266 Source of Uncertainty module and Grant Richter's Wiard Noise Ring.
I'm not manufacturing or selling modules, kits, or PCBs, but the design files are all Creative Commons licensed, so you can get PCBs by emailing one file to China, components from a company like Mouser, and laser cut acrylic front panels from anywhere that such things are made. Full how-to details are here: Finding parts to build the random sequencer.
Over the last couple of years, I’ve spent a few evenings building DIY guitar effects. It's fun to build things that you can use. If you want to get started, one of the hardest things is buying components. Try to buy a 10Ω resistor from Farnell, and you’re faced with a choice of 345 items. So, starting out buying a kit is a good idea. At least you’ll know the parts are right, even if when your soldering isn’t.
However, not many people sell kits. Despite the potential markup on a handful of bulk components, the customer service is - presumably - a nightmare. Here are 23 companies who will sell you complete component kits for guitar effects - many more people produce PCBs, or sell finished pedals. Stay tuned for similar lists on synths/noise boxes and tube amplifiers.
US 1. Build Your Own Clone Probably the best known company in the business, BYOC have a huge range of kits
From the Confidence Booster, a $15 booster kit with no box or switch to the $150 analog delay that they describe as extremely difficult’. They have a very good reputation on the forums for selling reliable, easy to build kits. Their UK Distributor is Vibe-O-Tronic and Moody Sounds (below) sell them in Sweden.
Price: $15-$150 2. General Guitar Gadgets
The other big player in US kits, GGG seem slightly less ambitious than BYOC, but still offer a good range of familiar sound-alike pedals in complete kits, including switches and pre-drilled boxes.
Prices $38 - $80 3. OL Circuits
Officially Licensed Circuits have an interesting collection of kits developed on various online communities. They sell the runoffgroove.com collection of famous guitar amps converted into pedals, plus various interesting valve circuits including the Beavis Tube Cricket amplifier.
Prices: $65-$135 4. 4ms pedalsBig range of exotic and interesting pedals, stand alone noise boxes and modular synth gear, including the knob-tacular Tremulus Lune. Kits and finished products available.
Prices: $90-$140 5. Small Bear Small range of kits (boost, fuzz, tremolo) from the company who specialise in components for DIY pedal builders.
Prices: $36-$85 6. PAIAGrandaddies of DIY audio kits. They don’t sell any real stompboxes, but have a few interesting guitar projects like the QuadraFuzz, and an entire modular synth range.
Prices: $25 - $200+ 7. Mod Kits Small range of boost and distortion pedals, plus a reverb built around the Belton Brick.
Prices: $25-$100 8. Fuzz Box WorldSells one simple fuzz kit for $39 9. Get LoFiAn interesting range of simple circuits including a fuzz, an amp and (coming soon) a lo-fi delay. They don’t sell enclosures or switches, just the boards and components.
Prices: $18-$25 10. SynthrotekA few interesting noisy kits, including a Lo-Fi delay unit and various fuzzes.
Prices: $35 for the delay kit. 11. Devi EverDevi Ever is a Portland-based boutique builder who makes endless varieties of Fuzz. She sometimes sells kits through her Etsy shop, but is currently out of action.
12. Triode Electronics
Among their huge range of tube amp gear is one Germanium boost kit for $75.
Global 13. MEK Electronic (Germany)
A big and varied range of kits including a Klon clone, a delay, a reverb and four (!) varieties of Muff Pi. They’re fairly cheap. The Fuzz Factory clone they sold me worked first time, and had a very neat layout.
Prices: €22 - €56 14. Musikding (Germany)Fairly wide range of surprisingly cheap kits from a German supplier with a vast range of DIY effect parts.
Prices: €21-€35 15. Moody Sounds (Sweden)
Good range of pedals including the the interesting Moody Echo, which comes with a light sensitive option for extreme crazy. They also resell BYOC pedals in Sweden.
Prices: €45-€75 16. Pigeon FX (UK)
Small range of nice mojo-ish kits: Fuzz Faces and Rangemasters with carbon comp resistors, dark brown PCBs and big ol’ capacitors.
Prices: £15 for the boards and components. 17. DIY Stompboxes (Germany)Big range of curiously translated but familiar-looking circuits, including clones of almost the full Zvex range.
Prices: €25-€85 18. DIY Pedal Kits (UK)
Small range of loopers and fuzzes. Despite pictures of Boss-style pedals all over the site, these all come in the more normal Hammond-style enclosures (Like MXR effect pedals)
Prices: £35-£60 19. Boutique Techniguitarre (France)A small range of distortions and boosters, available in pre-drilled boxes with appropriate stickers.
Prices €38-€59 20. Ess_7Stores (China)
An Ebay Store from Hong Kong selling an interesting-looking point-to-point wired (that’s putting it very politely) FET Fender Blackface preamp kit.
Price: $32 inc shipping 21. Quasar Electronics (UK)A handful of guitar circuit kits from this old-school Velleman-ish educational company. I tried to build their trem and managed to mess it up, which is no reflection on them.
A few posts on Music Thing should appear over the next week or two, dumps of research and notes that I thought it would be fun to share. Normal service will not, I'm afraid, be resumed...
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Four years ago, I had a job editing laddish lifestyle magazines funded by the National Health Service. It was a great job, great people, and not very time-consuming. So, at work and at home I started writing Music Thing. To my surprise and delight, people started reading it. It was fun and all-consuming. Every day you - the readers - sent me great stories which I had time to research and post.
The things I learned doing Music Thing (the internet stuff more than the guitars shaped like guns) have now helped me get a job where I'm in charge of the online output of The Times newspaper, managing 40+ people and a history going back to 1785.
I spend all day on the web, talking and thinking about traffic, developers, links and readers. It's no longer what I want to do at home, so this will be the last Music Thing post. That's right, I've used this blog to get what I want, now I'm spitting it out like stale gum. Sorry about that.
Thank you to everyone who has ever sent me an idea, particularly if I never got round to using it. Thanks to my fellow gear geek bloggers who have given so much help, friendship and inspiration. Special shouts out to Peters Kirn, Rojas and Taylor, Joel Johnson, Chris Randall, Matrix, Neil S and Michael M. (Image via Keith)
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Bleep Labs BitBlob is the only thing to buy this Christmas. A patchable synth encased in a pyrex glass jar complete with glowing monsters. $216, limited edition of 30...
Another xmas essential is Benge's Twenty Systems album - a lovely booklet/CD package with twenty tracks recorded on twenty different systems, from Moog Modular to NED Synclavier. (More pics here at Hardformat)
New synth #1: Dave Smith Mopho, tiny yellow all-analog synth for $399 (from Analog Haven). Like the button marked 'push it', don't like the lack of knobs.
Where's the party at is a great-looking sampler module kit on a single PCB, complete with dozens of breakout points for circuit bending.
New synth #2: Moog are re-releasing their Taurus bass pedals, in a limited edition of 1,000. $1,695, all analog, based on the original circuitry but with midi and proper memory. People have been asking for this in forums for years, but I'm amazed they've actually done it.
David Dewaele from Soulwax (another MT reader) explains their extremely fun-sounding live setup to Future Music mag - a mix of Ableton and analog gear. Unfortunately, it's an audio slideshow, so rather than scanning through the article you have to listen for 8 minutes...
Wonderful podcast #2: Us and Them is a genuinely mind-blowing collection of Cold War propaganda music - you can download all seven episodes from the sidebar of the Clerkenwell Kid blog
New synth #3: Korg Microkorg XL - very long awaited follow up to the absurdly successful Microkorg (if they'd only sold the actual synths that appear in music videos, they'd still be rich). Gone are the wooden end cheeks and light up buttons, replaced by an interesting-but-ugly look slightly reminiscent of the Micromoog.
Steim is now safe. The Dutch Council for Culture has agreed to help fund the Amsterdam home of strange clicky music and gestural interfaces. The blog-inspired letter writing campaign apparently helped. (Previously...)
In the not-awesome-but-understandable camp, the Chimera BC16 is currently off-sale as they catch up with back orders (finally). Shortly before that was announced, they put up the price of the wonderful BC16 to £280.00. Still a good price, but not the astonishing bargain it was at £116, when it was first announced. (Previously)
If you're a MT reader who has watched UK television in the last week, you've probably already been traumatised by a certain disinfectant advertisement: "The advertisement depicted two children seated at a piano. When one of them sneezed, a concerned mother reached for her can of Dettol and sprayed the keys." The Music Industry Association (the trade body for music gear manufacturers) called in the Advertising Standards Authority: "The company explained that the idea its product might do harm simply hadn’t occurred to it and agreed not to screen the offending commercial again, pending tests to find out whether, in fact, Dettol did actually represent a hazard to piano owners."
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Had a great time yesterday at a synth building workshop in East London hosted by Tom Bugs. We built little one board synths with ten knobs, three oscillators, overdrive, line out, onboard speakers, touch points. Flickr set here. What I learned:
1. Soldering now holds no fear. Get a £5 soldering iron with a pointy tip, a cleaning pad, some skinny solder and some wire snippers. It's fine.
2. Well-designed kits are really easy to make. Tom's kit was perfect - well laid out, nice clear circuit board, great instructions (he should be selling the kits 'soon'). The quickest maker did it in about 3 hours, and that was slow and steady... (The Thingamakit is another really well done kit which is available now)
3. Musical accompaniment is important. We were lucky enough to have the Sun Ra Arkestra soundchecking next door.
4. Good lighting is also important. Soldering by candlelight = atmospheric, but not easy.
5. Tom Bugs has only been building electronics for five years - starting out with circuit bending. He's now at the point where he has an assitant to do the boring bits. He's a bit down on veroboard. He uses Eagle to design circuit boards, which are mass-produced in China. His next thing: modules for Frac-rac modular synths.
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This is a difficult review to write. The point of Music Thing over the last few years has been to celebrate hardware when all around were defecting to the sensible, practical world of software synths and in-the-box mixing. Celebrating hardware not because it's better, but because it looks cool and is nice to have around. The best hardware is ambitious, bonkers, knob-covered and over engineered; where no switch is left unilluminated and there's always a joystick. Synths should be modular and/or white. Sequencers should be analog and involve copious blinkenlights. We should remember the mega synths of the past - the Yamaha CS80, the ARP 2600, the Roland Jupiter 8, the Moog Modular, and we should remember the crazy experiments of the early digital era - Dave Smith's gnarly Prophet VS. Here, then, is one machine that does all that. The Arturia Origin is a big white synthesizer. It has a hand rest like an old studio console or an MPC60 (unfortunately curved steel, not pleather, but still...) It's made in France, of all places. It's a digital modular synth, containing models of oscillators and filters from Moog, Arp, Roland and Yamaha, plus a VS-style wavetable section. Editing is done on a little colour screen surrounded by knobs and buttons - just like the one on the prototype PPG Realizer - the German machine that anticipated soft synths and virtual analog long before it was possible. So why am I not in love with the Arturia Origin? Why am I writing this, rather than playing with the thing? How come I've already taken the top off to have a look inside and see how it all works? Because the Origin has crossed that line - it's not a hardware synth, it's a computer in a box covered in knobs. Please remember this isn't a real review. This isn't Sound on Sound. I've lived with this box for days, not weeks. I'm not a real musician, I haven't read the manual properly - most of what I say is ill-informed prejudice. The trouble starts when you turn it on, after first plugging it in, using the OEM external power supply that must have cost 99p. (Seriously, a £1900 hardware synth only really makes sense if you're playing live. An external PSU only makes sense if you're desperately trying to cut costs. If Behringer can manage a proper internal universal PSU in £70 mixers, why can't you?) Anyway, when you turn it on, it takes 30+ seconds to boot. Because it's a computer in a box. No, it isn't a literal PC in a box like an Open Labs Neko or a Hartman Neuron, so it will have taken serious R&D investment to design and build. The hardware was designed - in 2005 - by Wave Idea, a French company who make MIDI interfaces. What's frustrating about the Origin is that it's a computer in a box pretending to be an analog synth... and nothing more. The presets are nice enough, although it's a shame that combining 40 years of synth design produces a bunch of trance noises. The switch-covered interface means its rather too easy to turn off the layers of reverb and chorus on all the presets. It's a bit unfair, but does leaves many of the patches sounding weedy and thin. The fun bit is building new patches - delving in to that glorious vintage toolkit. And it's easy enough. You control the whole process through one one those big encoders with a push switch. I found it quick enough to patch together a basic VS - four wavetable oscillators, mixed by the joystick and running through (why not?) parallel CS80 and Jupiter filters. I like the little design features - the Yamaha filters look like knobs on a CS80. The thing is - and here's where I'm so conflicted - I just wanted a mouse and a decent-sized screen (oh, the shame of it). I'd much rather have the beautifully realised screen-based Nord Modular editor - which reproduces the reach-and-grab simplicity of a real modular synth, while allowing for endless complexity. Because patching a modular synth is more than rearranging a few filters and oscillators. It's about weird connections - putting control signals through audio effects, building oscillators from envelope generators. The Origin is not a tinkerer's paradise. Apart from anything else, the modules are so restricted - no sample player, no FM, no granular synthesis, nothing that's been invented since 1986. And it's a completely closed system - it doesn't run VSTs or allow users to develop their own modules. Perhaps there are hidden depths to the Origin - hidden away in menus I missed, or planned in future upgrades. It does much more than the £190 Analog Factory software/controller combo which presumably contains all the same synthesis algorithms. Unfortunately it costs as much as Analog Factory and a brand new mid-range MacBook Pro. That is a very, very big ask. The Origin is a wonderful thing. It looks good, it feels good. I'm sure it's not overpriced for what it is - a boutique, limited-run machine with a lot of custom hardware and software. But I can't imagine who would be willing to pay £1,900 for it. It's too digital for an analog fetishist, too analog for a sound experimentalist. The potential of this box is immense - DSP power + screen + knobs + blinkenlights + wooden end panels. But at the moment it's just - tragically - boring.
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Alan Yentob's 3 hour series The Story of The Guitar has been simultaneously fascinating and irritating. Fascinating because there are plenty of great stories and interviews along the way, and irritating because it's the same old Great Men of Rock as ever: music history as written by Q Magazine.
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