Number 50

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Hokey Smokes- Number 50. As in yes, I have now built 50 experimental synthesizers. Not to mention at least a couple hundred guitar pedals. Should I get a medal? I’m actually not so sure how I feel about all this. Is it time to move on? Double down? Challenge myself? Pivot? Actually, at this point, sup pies are kind of limited – I think that if I just continue on the current path, things will kind of sort themselves out by themselves. Or at least that’s the idea at the moment.

So this is how this one came about. About 7 years ago, LX Rudis gave me a box of cigar boxes that I’ve by and large been building instruments out of ever since, governed by a couple ground rules for general consideration. For instance, in the case of the cigar box synths, they largely must subside within the realm of a gift economy. Not to say that money can’t change hands, as in one case where a synth was commissioned, but usually they exist more to be bartered or simply given away as a token or gratitude. Obviously, LX got one. One was traded to Gino Robair for a keyboard, one went to my friend Matt in New York, and so on. Number 27 remains as part of my live setup. I’m pretty sure I made a few more, but a good number of them were made before I started keeping track of numerical builds – as you might infer from the build reports, there’s a couple gaps that still need to be accounted for. If I come across anything, I’ll let you know.

Sometime around the middle of last year I finally realized something – I only had a handful of boxes left. Seeking to put an aspect of this project to bed, I ordered plexi to cover the remaining boxes, used up the final drops of my enamel that I iced up when Utrecht went out of business on Market St., sketched up a couple designs, painted the enclosures to seal up the cedar and… nothing. Got busy. Other projects prevailed. Xime got bigger. And so on. I even made up goofy noise box names for them like “Atari Punk Condo” and “The Chaos Badger.” I’m not sure on that last one. I think it was just kind of a nod to the absurdist of naming conventions. Yeah, I’ll go with that. I think I ended up renaming that one the “Eyetron” anyways. And then there was this one, who’s project name was “For Carlos Amorales.”

Audience participation time. Hands up if you know who Carlos Amorales is. If you don’t open a new tab and goggle him. I’ll wait. So yeah. That guy. He happens to be in some of the same circles as Pau ala the whole Latin American art thing, but 10 years deeper into the game and a lot more accomplished – arguably owing to the whole being 10 years deeper into the game thing. I first met him in Panama City during our BAVIC show and was pretty intrigued by his “Nuevos Ricos” project. Fast forward a few years and word got to us that he was working on a sound art piece. I guess when I was sketching this particular box out, I had that in mind when I wrote the working title in my sketchbook. When the build was a little farther under way, I mentioned to Pau that this was the working title and asked if we should actually try to send this box to him. We thought about it and maybe two days later an email was sent, and an enthusiastic reply was given. After all, who doesn’t want a hand-hewn experimental synth, right?

This is where the story gets interesting. Being all middle class somehow, we started looking into the whole summer vacation thing. Originally, the plan was to take a flight out to Portland to see if our pipe dream of packing it all up and moving across country to one of the most synthed out cities in the US was even viable and then escape Baltimore’s abomination of a street fair, Artscape by packing our yet-to-be-used new tent out to the National Radio Quiet Zone for some truly off-the-grid camping. But then our friends in PDX decided to summer in NYC and Pau’s art schedule kind of negated the camping. So we needed a Plan B, and in the end said plan involved picking up some scary-cheap tickets to Mexico City in order to introduce Xime to her cousins before she has to pay for a seat and afford us 7 days of eating ourselves into an absolute food coma on traditional Poblano cuisine. And seeing as we were in the neighborhood, another email went out to Mr. Amorales and a meeting was set for the day after our arrival.

Here’s how it went. First, it should be noted that being one of the top artists in Mexico is a lot different than being one of the top artists in Costa Rica. Case in point, Carlos has a studio. Don’t get me wrong, we had a studio as well, but ours was just the second floor of a house across the street from the physical therapy wing of Hospital Calderon Guardian – and it was awesome. Workshops were hosted, electronics were built, sculptures wee made, and seeing as it was in a non-resideitial district, parties were had and no one knew the wiser. We even tried living there for a second, but the lack of a functioning kitchen, shower and the oppressive heat of a sheet-metal roof made things a little unbearable. I think I was also all like “$40 for an electric hot plate? Screw that!” What can I say, money was tight back then. Actually, that’s kind of the general theme for most of my longer build reports. Back to Mexico and Carlos’ studio. First off, two floors. Better neighborhood. And a staff – something you don’t even really encounter not he higher echelons of the CR scene – oh the differences in working in a city of 2 million as opposed to 20 million. We’re talking an administrator, a grant writer, a couple graphic designers, a digital artist and fabricator, and, in this case a sound art advisor, all at the ready to further the brand. I’m into it. Looking forward to other builds for them.

Speaking of, let’s talk about the synth itself, shall we? It’ actually a Pautron circuit at the core – however, instead of using the bit shifter section as a voltage divider, I’m taking 4 in depended 9v outs and running them into 4 4093-based NAND synths. Given my propensity for blinking lights, and with 20 holes already drilled just for the post, I was running out of real estate on the box – so I decided to try something that I’ve been wanting to do for a second now – namely use those silly clear plastic potentiometers that you can stuff with an LED. The result being what you see before you. Ala sounds, It’s pretty warm for a digital chirp machine, though there’s definitely some ghosts in the machine – for instance, it really picks up radio – arguably a good thing. Also, the active mixer section has a slight mind of it’s own and for whatever reason, it kept freaking out my audio interface when I was trying to record with it. No idea why and I was unable to replicate when just plugged into an amp. Though that coupe be because my current interface is now 12 years old and has survived two computers as well as countless shows and oodles of international travel. Not to mention that one time I got caught in the rain in Pennsylvania. Thinking it’s time to upgrade. To something quasi future-proof and nice.