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Part 4: Wrangling Noise

Back to Exploring Analog series

Noise Wrangling

We all know beauty is in the eye of the beholder. What about our ears? Surely, we all shudder uncomfortably when we hear the crackle of a dusty needle hitting a spinning record, the screech of chalk against blackboard, or the mighty, booming rumble of thunder? Well, let’s detach those three sonic examples from their original settings, and put them to musical use instead. As noise, resonance, and loudness, chances are these elements will bring life, texture and volume to your sound, and perhaps cause shivers of pleasure instead.
“How do you make what may be considered ugly beautiful and artful and colorful?”
Hank Shocklee — of The Bomb Squad & Public Enemy fame — who excels at turning noise, distortion and wayward frequencies into art, is lyrical about how the Analog Heat lets him do just that.
Read the Elektronauts Talk

The Art of Noise

Hold on, noise? Isn’t the word synonymous with all the stuff we don’t want to hear? Why would we want that? In Part 2, we mentioned that we can use short bursts of noise to make hi-hats, but it’s great for other percussive sounds too, like the rattle of a snare or snake, or any hissing or transient sound. That’s white noise. Like white light contains all colors, white noise consists of randomly mixed frequencies across the whole spectrum. We could also use red noise, with its boosted lower frequencies, for blowing or waterfall effects, or soft transients for pad or wind-type sounds.

Pink noise has equal energy level across the frequency spectrum. It has a cascading quality and behaves like the falling grains of sand in an hourglass do. When the sand lands and starts to form a little mound, sometimes just one grain tumbles down its side, sometimes thousands of them in a little avalanche. Loads of phenomena, from highway traffic to weather patterns, jerk around in a flickery, fractally, pink noisy kind of way. Its prescence in nature and art is a topic to get lost in, and its musical potential is still open for exploration.

White noise, to return to something more familiar, was something pioneering experimental musicians Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Cage sought to achieve in the structure of their compositions. How do we make analog noise? We’re uncertain of what Buchla uses as a source, but how about using an imperfect component, like a leaky diode? We could use the radiation from a grain of polonium as a source, too. That would be cool! Probably illegal, though. How about the cosmic background radiation, the last fading embers of the Big Bang? That’s what you see and hear when you tune an old tube television to a dead channel (see the video loop up top).

Right Back at Ya

Resonance is the physical phenomenon that makes a choir sound loud and clear when all individual voices manage to sing in harmony. Harmonic, the descriptive word we’d use when we experience none of the participants sing off-key, is also the definition of a frequency that vibrates sympathetically with the fundamental, the note they hit. If the fundamental is an A with a frequency of 440 Hz, its harmonics are all the integer multiples of it: …110, 220, 440, 880, 1760… and so on.

The reason we can tell the difference between a human voice and a tuning fork, even if they produce the same tone, is the characteristic set of harmonics they produce. The number and amplitude of their harmonics differ, and so, accordingly, does the timbre. Note that the fundamental is its own harmonic as well, so something can vibrate sympathetically with itself to the point of drastically increasing the amplitude of the vibration. A resonant filter with high emphasis around the cut-off frequency will do this if fed continuously with a signal.

A resonant filter is an instrument in its own right. Pinging it with a pulse makes it sing a clear, melodic timbre to the tune of its cut-off frequency, and it makes simple waveforms more musically interesting. We can even build a simple vocoder: a band-filtered, amplitude-modulated carrier signal turns the complex waveform of a human voice into a set of simple harmonics! Do mind the power of resonant frequencies: a filter will screech painfully with a positive feedback loop, a great bridge may throb and tear itself apart (like the Tacoma Narrows bridge did in 1940).
“It has the best sounding distortion and fuzz ever.”
Kimi Recor of Dræmings likes what the Analog Drive does to the sound of her guitar.
Read the Elektronauts Talk

Turn it Up

Sometimes, even in music, brute force is the best option: loudness. How do we make a signal stronger? We could use resonance again, mix the signal with an identical signal, to get a stronger signal through sympathetic vibration. If we feed the signal back into itself with no delay the signal gets stronger and stronger. If we let that go on carelessly, we wreck something. Usually, someone’s ears. Used cunningly, though, the power of gain is one of the most fundamental in music and our appreciation of it.

There’s a part in our inner ear that’s supposed to help us maintain our balance, a sort of spirit level. We use a section of that organ, the saccule, for listening, too. The saccule only responds to sounds that are very loud (stronger than 70 dB), and when that occurs it fires off signals to the pleasure zones of our brain. So, when we go to a concert or rave, we listen and enjoy with our saccule as much as with our ears. Sky diving, bungee jumping or high speed driving tickles the saccule in similar ways.

How, then, do we make it loud, analog style? We could amplify the signal with a vacuum tube triode. Real old school, older than modulars. We can use transistors and capacitors. If we feed an amplified waveform through a filter, it can clip at the tip of the crests and troughs, changing the shape of the waveform, producing overtones. Wild howls, or pleasant fuzz, depending on our choice of circuit and settings. We could feed back the signal through the filter in an overdrive circuit. Increase the gain. Work that saccule.

A Brief History of Noise

The artful manipulation of sound dates back to electroacoustic experimentation nearly a century ago. Distortion became commonplace with the advent of rock and roll, electric guitars and fuzzy tube amps. Our selection of a few gnarly analog sound processing technologies below, including the outstanding Analog Heat.

1948 1955 1963 1975 1985 2016

1948

Some ideas, taken further by Karlheinz Stockhausen, John Cage and other pioneers in the Sixties, were present in the art movement called Musique concrète: let sound guide composition, use recording equipment, have fun and be playful. A similar movement also emerged in Japan.

Forties radio studio equipment; shellac recorders, mixing desks, loudspeakers, plate and spring reverbs, filters and mikes were all viable instruments for exploring and manipulating the time and space of sound.

1955

In the rocking and rolling Fifties, Chuck Berry’s distinctive warm, fuzzy electric guitar sound (think Maybellene) was a result of using a small, inexpensive valve amplifier that distorted the sound through high gain. An accidental discovery, now so prevalent the sound is genre-defining.

Link Wray also experimented with creating noise and dirt, using imperfect valves, poking holes in speakers and creating feedback.

1963

Millions of people heard the world’s first wholly electronic theme music open the 1963 television premiere of Doctor Who. Its creator, Delia Derbyshire, was unknown to the public at the time.

Delia’s early use of electronics, primarily reel-to-reel magnetic audio tape manipulation (and EMS synthesizer equipment), broke new ground, including layering, looping and sampling of sorts, and some of her unique ideas haven’t been heard since.

1975

The Seventies, the first golden age of analog synthesizers, introduced the world to a whole new palette of sounds. Kraftwerk was the band that above all others would be associated with the rise of synthesizer music.

Although the vocoder was an existing piece of 1930s telecom tech, its refit to musical use and popularity is something we can thank Kraftwerk for. Its sound, equally robotic and harmonic, still sounds great.

1985

We love this effect: it uses time to create the illusion of space. Like the vocoder, it is also an analog synth of sorts. A chorus effect takes an input signal and mixes it with a few delayed, LFO-modulated copies of itself to turn one voice into a shimmer of voices. Gives the sound a 3D feel.

Boss released the DC-2 Dimension C pedal in 1985 (based on the rack effects unit SDD-320 Dimension D from 1979). 4 presets, goofy-looking and spacious-sounding, this one was used liberally by greats like David Gilmour and Johnny Marr.

2016

This little wonderment by Elektron offers a choice of eight distinct analog effects circuits in one box. The Analog Heat features highly adaptable enhancement, saturation, drive, gain, distortion, fuzz and crunch at the twist of a dial.

Add to that a comprehensive multimode filter, an LFO and an envelope follower that lets the effect kick in at a specific amplitude: if this carnival of effects does not satisfy our thirst for texture, nothing will. The Analog Drive, a bona-fide analog 8-circuit effects pedal, was released shortly afterwards, footswitches and all.

Gnarly Enough to Grasp

Forget all the above. Noise? Feedback? Saccule? What are we trying to pull, here? The whole point of going all digital, starting forty years ago, was to get rid of that, right? Well, yeah, that was part of the deal, but wasn’t something lost in the process? Isn’t there something scary about a grand plan to get rid of all noise? How about a nice, clean night sky? Take away all the stars, why don’t we? They’re the noise! Well, we don’t need to pick one or the other. Digital is here to stay for a reason, and with analog processing we get that lost something back.

With its eight effects circuits, each with its own bustling metropolis of analog components, the Analog Heat is an excellent companion for bringing texture to any sound source. From subtle enhancement to saccule-stimulating distortion.

Too clean is creepy. In music, as in life, we need the noise and the imperfections. They give texture to things that are hard or impossible to grasp otherwise. Noise, resonance and loudness make music the wild, free-roaming beast that it is. We can wrangle it, but it can never be tamed.

Analog Heat MKII

Add sparkly brilliance, or grimy roughness, to any sound source. Samplers, drum machines, synths, the master bus, you name it. Analog Heat MKII is a fiery furnace destined to make your music glow.

Read more

Analog Drive

Analog Drive gives you eight analog distortion types in one box. It is the ideal pedal for guitarists who want to wreak havoc to signals and tones in the most diverse and characterful way possible.

Read more

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