Arguably the pinnacle flagship of our entire operation, representing a dramatic shift in intention and the inspirational drive in why we currently do what we do. This is it folks – Number 21.
Mr. Travis tells a story: For those that know me, it’s common knowledge that I left the US for about two years to live with my wife in her native Costa Rica. Obscured in the annals, however, is what I did prior to leaving. Ok, not so obscure – I mean, it’s also common knowledge that I was a math teacher at a school for at-risk youth, noise musician, and builder of Ciat-Lonbarde-derived synths in San Francisco – but for ten months prior to leaving, I existed in somewhat of a driftless period where I intentionally detached myself from my San Francisco life; a time that I referred to even then as Operation: Exit Strategy. For a second, it involved a motorcycle and a bivouac. Then I sobered up. What a weekend that was. The rest was much more calculated – belongings were shipped, project were finished, debts were paid and forms were filed. And as the date approached, the semi-guarded secret about my egress was leaked – there was a lot of that going on back then. And about a month or so before I left, I was approached by a friend asking if I could build him something that combined one of my synths and a high-end boutique pedal into one box. In my usual fashion, I said yes, even though time was tight and I’d never built anything pedal-based before – total uncharted territory. Hell, I’d never even actually soldered a true printed circuit board prior to this – but I said yes and embarked on one of those life-changing journeys that shaped the next few years of my existence.
Step one: figure out how to build a guitar pedal. Somehow in all my previous electronic experience, I somehow managed to miss this step. But then again I taught myself how to solder as a means of staying warm in a yurt in rural Colorado. At this point I was fairly adept at soldering point-to-point, but I had absolutely no idea what I was actually wiring together, how it worked and the whole concept of schematics was completely foreign to me. Up until this point, I think the general theory behind troubleshooting was follow instructions, hope I wired the power supply correctly and wait for the moment of truth when I plugged it in and it either worked or didn’t work. And if it didn’t work, usually the solution typically involved mashing wires until it did… something. Not the case for this one. It had to to do something and that something had to be specific. In our initial conversations, the idea was floated for something similar to a 4ms Noise Swash, which, as it happens, was sold as a kit, components included. It arrived a week later and within an hour of reception, I had the circuit assembled.
- The parts count between a simple, albeit wild guitar effect and a simple, albeit wild analog synth is pretty staggering.
- Populating a printed circuit board is a whole lot faster and more efficient than working point-to-point on a drilled piece of plexiglass. Go figure.
Step two: Finding a suitable enclosure. I was still pretty green at deciphering parts catalogs and component numbers. Not to mention that before this most of my enclosures came from one of three places; Radio Shack, The Container Store (topped with plexiglass culled from the scrap-pile at TAP Plastics) or via cigar boxes donated to the cause by a comrade-in-arms. I really knew nothing about where to look and how much to pay, etc. In the end, I ended up cracking open the only boutique pedal I owned at that point to see what brand they used – Hammond – and proceeded to search from there, eventually finding a box that not only fit the proper footprint, but provided enough wiggle-room to allow for haphazard wiring – after all, I was new at this. Of course, like most enclosures available on the market, it was made of metal, which posed two new challenges.
- How to drill into this stuff; and
- What to use to allow the signals of the proposed synth section to function without shorting to the box.
The drilling solution was easy – a friend who lived a few doors down had just upgraded to a CNC Lathe and had a drill press I could borrow. A note to future builders: Dremels, as awesome as they may be, are only capable of drilling holes up to about a quarter inch, provided you have an eagle’s eye and a steady hand. A drill press, however, is something else entirely. If you ever consider building anything of the electronic spectrum, I recommend having one on your bench. Seriously. Ala drill bits, that was easy – I was still involved with my school’s robotics team at the time and was able to borrow the appropriate sizes from the robotics room. I’ve since switched to using a uni-bit for most of my enclosures, but hey, it’s a start.
The wiring posed a problem, though. Traditionally, I’d relied on enclosures with either wood or plastic paneling that allowed me to use simple machine screws as inputs and outputs for my instruments. You simply just can’t do this with metal enclosures – sizzle, zap. Obviously that just wouldn’t work. But what to replace it with? Audio jacks? They have two terminals – all I needed was one – not to mention the footprint they’d take up. Mini-plugs? Expensive… and banana jacks? Relatively hard to come by and expensive by Radio Shack standards. Thankfully, there’s only one or two banana jack distributors and most of the variations in price and model number had something to do with the color of the jack itself. So I ordered a handful and went to work. A week or two later and the resultant box looked a little like this:
Eventually knobs were added and after couple tweaks made to balance out volume levels between the two sides of the box it entered into the service of the San Francisco noise scene, where it did it’s thing for a while and surprisingly held itself together for over two years until my amateur hack-job of a hybrid finally gave way and it was time to send it home for a check-up. Ok, it was actually sent home twice – the first when I was back from Costa Rica for a second when the preamps on the filters were upgraded and another 3 contact pint were hacked into it. But for all extensive purposes, this is what it looked like when it arrived.
A note on the VauxFlores operation as a whole: Sometimes it’s strange to think of this as a business. I mean, yes, I do sell electronics in exchange for cash money, and often design such things exclusively for the acquisition of said tender. In spite of that, we’re still a small operation where everything’s made by hand. Granted, we’ve figured out ways of making things faster, more consistently and more efficiently over the years, but in the end, each box is special; having taken the time, and dare I say love to be made to our specifications. I’m always kind of sad when a box ships out, but at the same time have enjoyed the connections, friendships and camaraderie that the business has brought me. In the end, each box is unique, as are their users and I try to stand by and support what they do, both with a tip of the hat as well as a pledge of support. Something seems odd? Or rather something seems odd that you can’t get down with? Drop me a line and let’s see what we can do about it. Such was the case with Number 21 being shipped home for an overhaul.
So this is what I did: First up is that the Rollz section and the Swash section just weren’t playing nice for a number of reasons and on certain settings they were simply shorting each other out. It’s one thing to be experimental, but that simply wouldn’t do. Talking to it’s operator, we decided in favor of gutting the Rollz section for a knob-based approach. And gut I did. Thankfully, the holes drilled for the banana jacks were the same size as the ones needed for potentiometers, so there would be minimal intrusions into the actual box itself – remove and replace. I’d sketched out a couple solutions in my notebook on what could be done – keeping in mind that there would be 19 holes to fill with…stuff. Droning stuff. The top row was easy – 4 knobs = 4093-based cascading square-synth that I’d been goofing around with since the TicoTronics adventure. With that came three LED’s – that brings us up to 7. 12 more to go.
Next I decided to go for a simple drone circuit using a CD40106 – well not so simple – I decided to mix it with a CD4077 – a technique utilized by Tom Bugs and the Korg MS-20, among others to create a unique pseudo-ring mod effect that only really works on square waves. My technique wasn’t exactly the most scientific – wire outputs to inputs in a chaotic mess and hope it sounds good – and low and behold, it did in a kind of unstable network kind of way – one knob will affect the frequency of another, as well as the ring and beating pattern. To make things even more interesting, i throw on a voltage starve to this circuit to allow sputtering dove-bombs and the like. That brought us up to 14 – 6 for the oscillators and 1 for the voltage. 5 more to go.
Next up was the filter section – I absolutely love Peter B’s ultrasound filter, but I’ve found that it can be a little unstable in certain situations. So looking to go classic, I replaced it with a two MMF filters designed to sweep through formants as opposed to frequency. Different, yes, I mean it’s an MMF as opposed to a switched capacitor-style filter design, but it works. Now we were at 16 – 3 more on deck and I was running out of options. And then it hit me – volume! The swash had a master volume control, but what about the synths – after all, the instrument was designed to function as both a pedal, a synth and a pedal that has a synth hard-wired into it, depending on the settings. So after the filter sections, I tossed in two volume pots. One more to go. I considered a voltage starve for the 4093 synth, as well as individual switches to connect the synth section to the swash section, but neither really piqued my interest. Then I tested the box and realized that there was no control over the input volume of whatever was going into the swash – good in some situations, not so much in others. So boom – input trimmer and done. A week later I mailed it back to San Francisco and so far the reports have only been positive. Not to mention that this build inspired me to oh, you know, expand into building other pedal designs and make a living off it and whatnot. In short, this build basically founded VauxFlores. Admittedly, I’m kind of into symbolism and whatnot – and Number 21 was one of the first (re)builds I completed after moving to Baltimore. I’d like to think there’s some sort of significance in that. Good significance. Looking forward.
Oh, right, so this is what Number 21 does post-evolution – neat, right?