Circuit training with Austin's DIY noisemakers
By Audra Schroeder, Fri., July 9, 2010
The door to Salvage Vanguard Theater opens, and out spills a whirl of glitches.
Bloooooop. Criiiick. Whoooommp. Whirrrrrrrrr.
Inside, a TV flashing pinks and yellows and greens beckons on one table; across the room, a cracked Leap Frog toy has been rewired to emit demonic sounds. On the ground, boxes filled with old video games and keyboards and relics of another era (the hood ornament from a Buick, a cell phone the size of my forearm) are up for grabs. "We're sort of on vacation," smiles Dann Green, standing in front of his modular synth, into which swappers are plugging and unplugging cables and turning knobs, producing a warped hiss and rattle of low-end bass.
This is Handmade Music Austin's summer swap meet, a laid-back, low-key Sunday affair, but no less noisy than the classes it's been holding here. Today, you're encouraged to bring in whatever mutant you've created, swap parts, or ask questions. Look around, and you'll see no laptops or iPads or fancy new gadgets; vintage or analog is ideal. Something you made is even better. On another table sits the bible for this gathering: The Art of Electronics by Paul Horowitz and Winfield Hill. The last edition came out in the late 1980s.
The first Handmade Music Austin event at Salvage Vanguard Theater in October 2009, part of Church of the Friendly Ghost's monthly programming, made a similar drone, generated by folks hunched over projects. Lone Star cans decorated tables, juxtaposed against looks of intense concentration from those soldering circuit boards, some for the first time. The turnout was impressive, and the classes have been consistently full since then.
For a generation who came of age at a time when technology was still clunky and strange (IBM, Texas Instruments, etc.), the desire to take things apart as adults should be considered a healthy impulse. There's a certain escapism in circuit building. I'd started using the term "gizmometry" to describe the science of it and all the avenues included, since I was a newbie and hoping it wasn't in the dictionary yet.
The four locals who make up the Handmade Music crew each have their own endeavors in gizmometry: Eric Archer's his own assembly line, churning out a dizzying number of one-time projects, like the electric gong and brainwave-controlled drum helmet; Dann Green runs 4ms Pedals, which sells hand-built electronics and personalized pedals; John-Mike Reed, aka Dr. Bleep, and his Bleep Labs birthed robotic noisemakers like the Thingamagoop; and Nathan Wooster is Wooster Audio.
"There are always more ideas than time," exclaims Reed, who started soldering and making kits as a kid. "The Thingamagoop came from when I was working in a recording studio around 2005. I saw that people had the tendency to get stuck inside the computer when trying to create and record music. If you have every option available to you, then you have a dilemma of choice. I wanted to make something that was more chaotic and dependent on human interaction."
Each class, beginners build one of the crew's creations from a basic kit prototype. In the past, Archer's Mini Space Rockers, Reed's PicoPaso, Green's Autonomous Bassline Generator, and Wooster's Space Baby have all been re-created in a few hours, then you're free to take it home and modify. The advanced classes require a bit more know-how and feature an experimental wireless network called IR Sync, something Archer brainstormed to keep a beat between multiple noisemakers.
Within gizmometry there's the freedom to build something one-of-a-kind that was willed into existence by curiosity. It's an alternative to the current consumer-driven polish of technology, and the chance to say, "Hey, I made that." Archer says that outside-the-box ideology carried over into something more inclusive with Handmade.
"The idea came out of going, 'OK, we're selling these kits online, but what could we be doing locally?' There are enough smart people in Austin who'd be into it, so why not give it a shot?"
"I've always been interested in DIY," Archer stated a couple weeks earlier, outside Flightpath Coffee House. "I have a memory of being in kindergarten or first grade and my mom giving me a screwdriver and an alarm clock and saying, 'Here you go.' Then I started making things from the RadioShack catalog. I guess that was what interested me. I don't remember being jazzed about music until I bought a Metallica cassette from a guy at space camp.
"Then I got interested in chemistry and went to college for it, but it's a little harder to be a DIY chemist. After a while, I realized I didn't want to hang out in science labs for the rest of my life. I get a new creative idea everyday, and with that profession, it's working on ideas from four years ago. I had to kind of stifle my creative impulses."
After he decided lab life wasn't for him, Archer delved back into electronics, revisiting things he'd been working on in high school. He discovered a whole subculture of DIY electronics, folks building things like pedals or synthesizers on the cheap, personalizing them, and selling them online. Boutique electronics. And if your niche is right, you can benefit. A piece of perfboard to build a circuit on is pretty cheap, as are all the basic components, and schematics can be found online.
"Instead of being funded by a corporation, or stuff that came down from a design team with management, it's one person's idea for a niche, and they're gung-ho about it, so they design it on their own time and market it independently," Archer adds. "There is a demand for it right now. It's like: 'This doesn't exist. Why not? And can I do it?'"
Just then, a posse of chickens strolls by, and you can't help but be reminded of the whole chicken-or-the-egg argument.
There are a few avenues within boutique electronics. There's modification – adding a feature to an instrument, like a drum machine. There's design, which is more like building a noisemaker from the board up. There's circuit bending, which is more a primitive impulse.
Local musician Thomas Fang has participated in Handmade events and also does his own thing as Static Storm System and the Furby Youth Choir. Remember Furbys, those creepy, battery-operated birdlike creatures from the late 1990s? Fang's gutted and rewired several of them for his own purposes: the ultimate payback. His approach to DIY electronics is a bit more invasive and exploratory.
"I do like to assemble [the Handmade] kits, but my usual approach is much more low-tech, taking existing devices and modifying them," Fang says. "I would have no idea how to design a digital delay or a drum machine, but bending cheap digital delay pedals and drum machines is something I've done."
There's also the joy that comes from rescuing stray toys.
"I enjoy finding things like a Casio SK-1 keyboard ($5.99, Goodwill) or a Barbie karaoke machine ($4.99, Savers) and turning them into mutant noisemakers," Fang adds. "Circuit bending has a pretty broad appeal because it really doesn't require any specialized knowledge or skill, just patience and willingness to experiment."
"Circuit bending" has become sort of the catch-all phrase for a lot of what happens under the noise umbrella, but Archer stresses it's just one part: "It's opening something up without regards to how it works. More like daring to short-circuit something, with the goal of wanting to hear something new. It's the punk response. With circuit bending, you're going into a piece of equipment, and a lot of times the result is more lo-fi and distorted. I'm down with that, but I don't do it anymore. I guess I wanted to make more pure sounds, build instead of attack."
Lisa Cameron, who drums for ST 37 and performs solo as Venison Whirled, has also attended a few Handmade classes and sees the parallels to that punk response: "It cuts across cultural lines like class, race, gender, and musical ability, in the same way punk and hip-hop did when they were created. It's refreshing to see all these people in Austintry it out and build on it further. Really, to me, that's what Austin is all about, creating new hybrids."
"It's been a good year for influx in Austin," Archer relates. "A lot of cool people moved here, and I think part of it is the opening of Switched On. And the electronic scene in general – we've got Ben Aqua (aka Assacre) booking at Cheer Up Charlie's; The Love Triangle, a comp that Tom Blackburn from Dallas recently put out, with electronic artists from Houston, Dallas, and Austin; bands like Survive playing the Victory Grill. I'm just glad to see more engineers into DIY from the ground up. I'm an engineer who loves to perform."
Archer played in Numbers on the Mast and currently performs with Erich Ragsdale as Bodytronix, a DJ duo that came together through love of library music and disco and performs on things Archer's built, as well as vintage modified gear. They performed at Switched On during South by Southwest, chopping out beats like sushi chefs.
The walls of Switched On, the relatively new East 11th Street electronics store, are lined with Moogs and Junos and Echoplexes; toward the back, the repair area where technicians Lars Larsen and Seth Nemec work is stacked with keyboards awaiting surgery. Farther back, there's a recording space. It looks sort of like a modular, futuristic funhouse.
The store came to be for many of the same reasons as Handmade Music. The was a growing demand for product but no physical presence, so owners Guy Taylor, Chad Allen, and John French combined forces to open a place where both vintage and new equipment could be available to the noise-inclined. They also sell locally made pedals and noisemakers.
"You can come in here, and it doesn't feel like a museum," Taylor says of Switched On's vibe. "There's Craigslist, but you don't know what you're getting, and you won't get to see it or touch it or play it. Business has been good."
"The guys from White Denim were in here recording yesterday," Allen adds.
The Summer of Soldering
The circuit boards decorating Archer's shelves look like tiny cityscapes, neighborhoods formed of intricately woven streets with a current. More colorful circuits and assorted gizmos sit scattered on a long table, some covered by leaves from a potted plant that's hanging above it. Today he's building a circuit that will then be fed into a solid-state relay – a two-pronged metal outlet. Two fire engine beacons sitting nearby will be plugged into that and will hopefully light up.
At one point in the process, the circuit flatlines, and Archer hooks the board up to an oscilloscope, an ancient-looking machine that looks like a heart monitor, to check for signs of life.
Is it going to make it?
"Yes, it just needs a little more lead."
Eventually the circuit revives, the lights come on, and we cheer, but he's still got work to do. It's a project he's working on for The Woodlands Children's Museum, and you don't want something like that to short.
Building a circuit really is sort of like surgery, in that you have a basic outline of what you're supposed to do, where things are supposed to go, and you have to have a steady hand. There's also something very meditative about it, especially for a scientific type like Archer. You get in that video-game mind, where hand-eye coordination is key.
"It does kind of scratch that Tetris itch," Archer says. "There's a gamelike aspect to it. You want to make the connections as short as possible. It's sort of like miniature plumbing but with electron pipes."
The next Handmade Music Austin solders on Sunday, July 11, 1pm, at Salvage Vanguard Theater.