The Victorian Synthesizer (2004-)

The Victorian Synthesizer

Study One For Victorian Synthesizer by J. M. Bowers

The Victorian Synthesizer is an ongoing project to build a musical instrument boasting the kinds of parts and capabilities traditional synthesizers have (oscillators, filters, amplitude envelopes, modulation) but using techniques known to the Victorians. It is this collision of contemporary concepts with outmoded means that creates the Victorian synthesizer as an imagined historical reject. Generally, the Victorian Synthesizer needs to be electro-mechanical rather than electronic, manual rather than voltage control is typically required, and some synthesis units will present especial challenges. Oscillators constructed through feeding back the output from amplifiers are, for example, post-Victorian inventions (c.1920 by Barkhausen and Kurz). Accordingly, I make the most of electro-magnetism (an 18th century discovery much celebrated by the Victorians) and the minimum of circuitry.

As Oliver Lodge (1898, Victorian) had patented moving coil methods usable for sound transmission in our epoch of interest, hacking loudspeakers seems an appropriate strategy for The Victorian Synthesizer. First, connect a battery (no more than 9v) direct to its terminals and enjoy the pops and thunks as the diaphragm moves in and out. The photograph above shows my current 'concert' set-up (known as VS-1). Two loudspeakers (for stereo of course) are wired in series with a battery and a conductive plate. I choose loudspeakers of contrasting histories and physical capabilities (I played a lot of prog-rock out of the one on the right, perhaps you can tell). A probe of the sort used in test gear is attached to the battery and when drawn across the plate causes the loudspeakers to jump. Grooves and other markings on the plate give a sonic texture to the probe gestures. Another (parallel) circuit involving a battery and a vibration or tilt switch is connected across the two loudspeakers. If the switch is rested on top of one of the speakers and the cone tapped, the switch will make and unmake its circuit yielding a kind of mechanical-electrical oscillation as it bounces around. The plate and the tilt switch circuits can be manipulated at the same time leading to a variety of modulations. The presence of washers and screws in the left hand speaker makes for percussive rattling. A final addition is a lead connecting the plate with the exposed metal band on the right hand speaker. If the probe touches this band a circuit is completed through the band leading to a squealing feedback sound.

Study One For Victorian Synthesizer features on the CD which accompanies Nicolas Collins' Handmade Electronic Music first published in 2006 and expanded in 2009. Nic's book also devotes a chapter to the technique.