How I made my own synthesizer
Dec 27, 2015
Years ago as a college student I took a class in electronic music which included some study of electronic additive & subtractive synthesis. In the lab was a giant Buchla synthesizer which to me seemed more like a Radio Shack project than a musical instrument. It had banana plug patch cords and dozens of modules which I could not readily comprehend. The few hours I was able to spend with it yielded little more than sine wave frequency sweeps and some voltage control beeps.
Recently I had been introduced to Silver Apples and was impressed with how they bridged the gap between the weirdness of musical artists like Morton Subotnik and Karlheinz Stockhausen and more contemporary late 60's psychedelic rock and roll. The live drums are "it" man. I was fascinated by how Simeon of Silver Apples crafted a monster synth with scientific test oscillators and guitar effect pedals, triggered by a dozen or so telegraph keys. Very unique and perhaps prone to drifting out of tune due to unstable electrical current, but Simeon typically played sweeps, drones and oscillations rather than traditional western scale note melodies.
Inspired by that chaotic set-up, I returned to studying basic electronic synthesis and found a book by Delton T. Horn called "Electronic Music Synthesizers" from 1980. The book is written like an electronic project guide on how to build your own analog synth with a couple dozen different modules. The promise of 30 year old science project analog synth technology was too alluring to resist.
With parts list in hand I went to Mac's Electronics who set me up with the components needed for a rectangle wave synth for about $30. If you've never been to Mac's it's this electronics store that has been there for so long, it seems like one part swap meet, one part guy living in his basement.
I opted for the "deluxe" model which uses 2 555 timer chips combined as 1 in the 556 model. This allowed two knobs, one for pitch and the other for rectangle wave shape. Yes you heard right, "deluxe" means it does more than a square wave pitch sweep. Some lessons learned: electronics are confusing and my solder game is sloppy, I was able to structure the circuit correctly on the bread-board, but somehow it took a few hours of manipulation and multi-meter testing to get it to work once soldered. It probably didn't help that I cheaped out on the trigger buttons and salvaged those from some other electronic device or that I insisted on squeezing it into an old modem case. Somehow through all this nerd struggle, I ended up with a second trigger button which added a mean noise wave through circuit bending.
The final result is an instrument which is played by holding it in the right hand with fingers on the 2 triggers, while the left hand can rotate the pitch and rectangle wave length knobs. It begins to change sounds as the battery wears down. For some reason it sounds different when plugged into a passive speaker versus how it sounds when plugged into an active mixer. Like I said, electronics are confusing.
While my little 556 is pretty useless as a consistent performing instrument (goal achieved?) it makes some sick noise and provided most of the samples featured in Public Service Announcement.