Friday, February 23, 2007

The Future is Yellow - Ideas for Metasonix

The guys over at Metasonix are a smart bunch – surely they have much better things to do with their time than listen to ‘suggestions’ and ‘ideas’ from idiots like myself.

But, hey, it’s 2007 and anyone who wants to artificially inflate their own sense of self-importance needs only to sign up for a free blog, and they are free to tell the world what to think.

What the hell else am I supposed to do with all this free publishing goodness that Google has furnished me with? Geez.

So, I should probably just write directly to those helpful and friendly lads at Metasonix. I’ve done it before (actually, probably too many times), and I get the impression that once in a rare while, they actually listen. But not this time. Nope, today I’m taking a new approach.

You see, now that I have a blog with some actual readers I feel this bizarre responsibility. Yes, a responsibility to give you something new to read whenever you stop over here at my little URL (Do people actually READ anymore? Really? wtf, you guys are actually giving me hope for humanity).

Anyway, call me crazy, call yourself bored, I dunno. Whatever… I’ve got time to kill between flights today, and I wanted to blog up SOMETHING for you lot to look at (thus saving you a few precious seconds of quasi-sanity before you run out of new web content, and click back to TubGirl or LemonParty, yet again. You sick puppy. 10 million new web pages a day and you are reading ME, hahahaha, what a world we’ve got…. ), so if it helps you while away the day, here’s some thoughts I’ve had about Metasonix.

Wait a sec, I know what you are thinking (you need to start thinking more quietly bro). Like three posts ago I promised to stop blogging so much about the yellow tube box guys. I KNOW. I’M A SICK MAN, OK?? But I’ve now got two new units in the mail, and I’ve been thinking a lot about this stuff lately, so unfortunately it is YOU that pays the price. Hahahaha, more Metasonix blogging.

Ok, as stated in the past, no-one really seems to be on the fence about Metasonix. You either love ‘em, and will happily line up to pay $449 a box, or you hate ‘em, and you wouldn’t spend a red cent. I actually *really* enjoy all the reactions and comments and debates whenever there’s new Metasonix material coming out. Anyway, onto some ideas.

Foremost, I don’t think there’s anything AT ALL wrong with Metasonix. They seem to have forged a really great and unique little niche in the market. I get the impression that Eric really likes being a bit of an industry rebel, and he’s created a great vibe around his company and their products. My ideas may be just too far outside of what he wants to accomplish with the company, and that’s fair. But regardless, I’ve got some ideas that I think would not only make for some excellent new products, but could also serve to open Eric’s market up to different kinds of musicians, and maybe move some of the ‘haters’ over to the other side of the fence. Now again, I think Eric likes the fact that his company really polarizes the buying public, and may be loathe to doing anything that’ll change that – I can’t say I’d blame him, he certainly does have a unique and enviable position in the marketplace.

“ok, stfu Muff you dumb wordy bastard! wtf are your Metasonix ideas??? A Turd Burgler distortion from BN6 tubes, right? With immature graphics and control names, eh? Bwahahaha”>

Well, not quite – though I’d probably buy it. (Hey! It’s fun to have a blog and invent fake commentary from your fake readers). I get made fun of at work for being too wordy (one of my jobs at work is the in-house writer so wtf do they expect??), and honestly I’m having fun writing this because I’m stuck at Dulles waiting on a fuckin’ airplane to be fixed (like that’s anything new) and have no-where to go. But anyway, I’ll try to cut to the chase here. Maybe Blogger has a word limit on new posts or some shit…

Ok, first of all, idea #1 – Tube Theremin

This is actually something I’ve mentioned to Eric, but he totally ignored my comment, which is a very judicious way of saying “I have no interest in that”. Or maybe he’s busy. But anyway for your consideration, think Tube Theremin.

Theremins are nothing new. They’ve been around since their invention in 1919 by the Russian scientist Léon Theremin (thanks Wikipedia!), and for the most part have been in production in one form or another ever since. What’s odd however is that, while the very first theremins used vacuum tubed based oscillators, all theremins since have been solid state, and other than legends of the very first units almost a century ago, I’ve never heard of a tube theremin. Seems like a perfect place for Metasonix to step in, doesn’t it? (And it’s much more musical than putting a Nixie clock into a yellow box!)

The theremin’s tone is based on the idea of heterodyning oscillators, which is something that requires two oscillators in order to function. Metasonix’s TM-3 VCO has two tube-based oscillators inside the box. They aren’t set up as heterodyne oscs, and I have no freakin’ idea at all how tough of a modification that would be, but since it basically means that one osc keeps a fixed frequency, while the other is modified by the player, I’m guessing that it may not be that tough. The TM-3 allows both oscs to have controllable pitch, so it shouldn’t be difficult to kludge one into a fixed frequency (?).

So, fire up that imagination, and visualize a yellow TM-3 enclosure with two antennas sticking out of it. Pretty slick, no? Should draw a lot of interest from sci-fi enthusiasts, retro music fans, and that paragon of trend & style, the theremin crowd. Remember where you heard it first folks.

Idea #2 – Utility Modules

Ok this idea is a bit harder to explain – but bear with me. Metasonix *almost* has enough modules in the TM line to build a fully functional modular synth. There are VCOs, VCFs, a ringmod, and a waveshaper. A couple of the modules can also act as a VCA. The only thing missing is an Envelope Generator, and possibly a dedicated VCA. Some little things like LFOs and mixers would be nice to round things out, but aren’t technically required to have a fully-realized modular synth structure. Ultimately VCO-VCF-VCA with an EG is all you need, and the inclusion of ringmod and waveshaping adds some nice extras, so it’s the EG that’s really ‘missing’ here.

Now, on this note, I have a hard time buying into the concept of a tube-based EG. This isn’t something that will process or generate sound, it simply responds to a gate signal by creating a control voltage that is fed to something that does process sound, like a VCA or a VCF. A control voltage generated by a tube wouldn’t really be something special compared with a control voltage derived from solid-state circuitry (unless I’m just dumb and actually it *would*). So why would I think of this as an idea for Metasonix?

Well, that’s why I asked you to bear with me. It would be a bit silly to realize an EG in tubes, at least unless Eric convinces me otherwise. BUT – the missing EG is the main thing that is stopping me from turning my Metasonix rig into a full-fleged synth on its own without using another manufacturer’s modules.

If Metasonix built a module that included EG features, suddenly they would be able to offer a COMPLETE modular synth from their TM line. But…. how do we solve the problem of a tube EG being a silly idea?

Well, this is why I titled this section “utility modules”. Some Metasonix units already derive some non-essential functions from solid-state circuitry, to enhance what their tubes are doing. For example, the ringmod’s internal oscillator is solid-state, however the ring modulation itself is done in a tube.

So, I’m thinking of a tube-based module that did some audio processing in a tube, but included a solid-state ADSR EG as a ‘secondary function’. So what would the primary function be? Dedicated VCA. That’s right baby.

In my perfect world, where everyone does what I tell them to do, Metasonix would release a couple of ‘synth utility’ modules, each with a tube-based VCA as the primary function (because you can never have enough VCAs, ever….). One would be a VCA+EG. I’m thinking of a toggle switch that internally routes the EG to the VCA’s gain, or disconnects the same routing. A dedicated ‘CV out’ for the EG, so that it can control other things besides the internal VCA.

With the drilling template that Metasonix uses on their boxes, you could pull this one off – you’d have to add a pot or two in place of some of the ¼” jacks, but you could get it all on there. You’d need ADSR knobs (that’s 4 in case counting letters is not your forte), you’d need a VCA ‘initial gain’ knob, and you’d need 5 jacks. Two of the jacks would be for the EG (‘gate in’ and ‘CV out’), and three would be for the VCA (‘in’, ‘out’ and ‘cv in’). So you would have 5 knobs, 5 jacks, and a toggle switch. There’s room on the box for this, and there’s room to add the one extra hole they would need in their drilling template. Cool, cool stuff.

Now that takes care of the EG, and it takes care of the dedicated VCA. Metasonix would now be able to offer a very compelling, fully modular, fully voltage controlled synth, using nothing but their modules. Wouldn’t that be precious? I think it would be a lot more fun than an army of circuit-bent Hello Kitty vibrators, that’s for sure.

Now, I mentioned earlier ‘a couple of’ utility modules. Since we are in dreamland and I’m the king of all things, please indulge me further. Let’s assume Metasonix loves these ideas, and builds the VCA/EG box. I’d buy the first one.

Suddenly the modular synth world is taking Metasonix a lot more seriously, and people are building full synth voices using these wonderfully dirty yellow boxes, and the world is a much better place. I can see Sunnis and Shiites suddenly getting along, and end to war, the bankruptcy of Wal-Mart, and a sudden plague that instantly vaporizes all lawyers and RIAA employees. This is good shit guys, really.

So we start to think about what else a modular synth can use, that can be done with tubes. Turns out to be not much. We could definitely use some silly little things like mixers, multis and attenuators, but I would seriously feel ill if there was a Metasonix multi/atten box, no thanks. Make these yourself kids. BUT – an LFO or two would be nice.

But the LFO really raises the same problem as the EG – it’s just a control voltage. Would it be silly to do in a tube? I think so (but I’m open to being wrong on this). So, back to the whole “never enough VCAs” statement, How about another VCA module, “synth utility module #2”? This one has the tube VCA, but instead of packing an EG onboard as an extra, it’s got an LFO (or maybe even two!).

Now, someone could buy these two utility modules, and end up with a pair of tube-based VCAs (which would be just about right for a single-voice synth using one of each of the available TM modules), an EG and an LFO. Hell, I would probably buy two of the EG modules, and two of the LFO modules, and I’d still end up using all four of the VCA’s this would give me.

So this has been a long, long post, and if you’ve read it all this far I thank you (and look forward to your comments! Are these ideas just stupid? Please tell me). My airplane is going to be boarding in a few minutes, and I’ve successfully killed all my down-time by writing this. Hopefully there’s something for you all to think about here. The future is yellow. And nasty. And has no lawyers. Discuss.


Carlo said...

Euh...what about a tube Phaser? Reverb unit? Compressor? OTHER Filter Modules? I also thought about an echo unit, but Eric told me tubes couldn't do that.

Muff Wiggler said...

sure, but none of those are even close to 'essential' modules in a basic modular synth setup

it would be great to see all of those, but without an EG there's still a bit of a gap in terms of realizing a classic synth architecture

also, there's lots of tube compressors available

reverb and delay are both something that i don't think would be possible in tubes...and a phase shifter? i can't even guess if it could be done in a tube. if i had to wager, i would wager 'yes', but i sure wouldn't put a lot of money down on the bet....

felix said...

I like all of your ideas, being a [poor] thereminist, I particularly like the tube theremin. They do sound different than their solid-state counterparts.

Just to play devil's advocate on the metasonix modular...the wretch machine, while quite quirky, is very close (arguably the same) as a simple modular tube synth just in a single enclosure. That would be the only reason I would think that Eric and Metasonix would not go further into "traditional" modular modules. Then again, here's hoping to me not knowing what the f*ck I'm talking about, cause I would totally buy it! :D

Zerosum said...

Effectrode has their uni-vibe clone as well as their phaser.
These are 12at7's though:(
The thing i like about metasonix is that its not just that they have tubes(oooo wow blink blink bzz bzz), its the kind of tubes that they use and what happens when certain tubes perform functions they werent "traditionally" meant to do.
The TM-5 and TM-6 have ONE BN6,
I cant even imagine what the TX-2 would be like with THREE in addition to having filter/LFO screw knob.
Id like to see a TX-2 with CV out for the Screw knob.

Anyway, I have thought about the LFO box a lot(previous to this) and would like to see a dual lfo box with a different tube for each lfo.

The EG i wouldnt buy,unless of course i had all the other modules i wanted first...which is a ways to go.
I just couldnt justify the cost, but the lfo/nasty modulator box yes.
I think there will be a modulation box eventually....or not..
I like the direction the TM-7 went:
feedback loop hardwired to the input,BN6 to go on top of it,a mixture of different tubes with a feedback loop is pretty sick.
Now just throw a modulator/LFO box and thats one nasty sound generator.
I need sleep ill come back to this later

Sean said...

im so disappointed i missed out on the probe.

either way. yeah a vca would be neat.

i just wish i had more money on hand to buy more metasonix gear...

still stuck on the tm-2 or the tm-3+midi/cv..

brian comnes said...

nice post, I;m sure eric is thriled

so you want a metsonix theremin?? hey get a frostwave spacebeam , hook up the c/v to the tm-3're in business

, you can also get c/v out of the PAIA theremax but I don't have one of those

and for a VCA, I;m gettin a PAIA VCA ADSR unit and stickin one in a metasonix box pianted metasonix modular is gettin closer. kind of like a wretch lite

Carlo said...

Yes, there's a lot oftube compressors available, but there's also a lot of tube preamps and tube distortions...It's different when Eric creates them though. A tube compressor made from TV tubes or radio tubes would be different than an Avalon tube compressor.

Also, here's a tube theremin you can build:

Muff Wiggler said...

thanks guys - great comments

i know about all the tube pres and comps on the market (even own some of them) and also agree that if Eric did this, it would be very different and unique

personally though, i don't care too much to see this from him - there's enough already. My post was prompted by the idea that his modules line is very close to a classic synth (and yes, competition for the S-1000), and could be there pretty soon. I don't see comps and preamps as something that's required AT ALL to make this happen :) You can get a tube comp from a million people

Carlo, thanks for the tube theremin kit link! i may actually do this some day, very interesting!

zerosum, thanks for mentioning Effectrode - interesting company! I didn't know about them.

funny, they steal (blatently in one case!) some marketing lines from Metasonix, and even has a link to Eric Barbour's paper on why tubes are better... and then seem to slag metasonix in other parts of their webpage.

I like the ideas, but would like to see him run an with something more unique before he starts making such claims.... tube trem has been done a LOT (I have an EG Wiggler, which, while providing me half of my online name, is also an AMAZING tube vibe/trem). He is doing a tube comp and a tube pre as well, both of which can be found at EH at from loads of other builders.

Now, the tube phase seems unique though! very interesting, i imagine this sounding really really good.....great idea!

by the way, i'm kinda love/hate with EH, however the "tube zipper" is a super, super fun pedal. one of my very favorites of all time. It's a tube envelope filter (a la Q-Tron or MuTron III) and a tube distortion all in one, and can do some amazing things.

Finally, to respond to the comment about "S-1000 competition", you are right, but I think it actually creates a win-win for Eric.

Condsider - different habits. For me, I would never spend $2500 (or even $1500, or even $750) on an "all in one case" synth. I'm too far down the modular path. I would spend $2500 on a bunch of modules.

I've looked at the S-1000, and compared it to what you would have with all the TM boxes.

There's ups and downs to both. A full complement of TM boxes would give you more CV ins and outs than an S-1000 would. The S-1000 gives you LFOs and EGs and the modulation bus. If you already have a modular rig, you may not need these.

But, bottom line, buying all the TM modules costs more than an S-1000. So Eric wins either way. For people like me, he'd make more money selling a bunch of yellow boxes. For others, it wouldn't stand in the way of the (cheaper, more integrated) S-1000.

just my thoughts anyway

Anonymous said...

Remember that the ts-21 had a tube lfo. Very peculiar asymmetry. I know that Eric has toyed with the idea of an LFO module with an eye tube but he doesn't think that people would buy it. I think it could sell if it could be run at audio frequencies as well.Of course , the s-1000 offers two EG outputs and boasts a much more capable oscillator section. It is astounding in combination with the tm-3.

Anonymous said...

I used to dream of a metasonix theremin as well. I don't think it would ever happen because any vco can be controlled with a proximity sensor. You couldn't make a proper heterodyning oscillator with thyratrons because the frequencies of the fixed and variable oscillators are extremely high. There are occasional homemade theremins and schematics on the web. If you haven't heard the sound , any clara rockmore recording features a tube theremin built by lev termen and restored by bob moog.

Muff Wiggler said...

ahhh, in this case I HAVE head the sound (i figured i hadn't)

i've heard some Clara Rockmore stuff and it's just incredible