(Re)Building the Ark

Soundgas at The MPG Awards 2019

We went to the MPG Awards for the first time (as sponsors no less!) – this our report on what we heard, what we saw, and why we support the work that the Guild do.

The Soundgas Team at the MPG Awards: L to R – Tony & Jo Miln, Joel Kidulis, Declan Kitts

At Soundgas we’re very keen to support good causes and as well as our giving impacts, we seek to help and encourage artists, engineers and the music community at large. The MPG (Music Producers Guild; see below for more info) is an organisation that celebrates and recognises the diverse range of talents working in the UK music scene and is a progressive force for good in our industry. We were proud to attend this year’s MPG Awards at the Grosvenor House Hotel In London and to sponsor the Studio Of The Year Award. This was our first visit to the MPG Awards and was a great occasion to meet up with friends old and new and spend an evening in the company of like-minded individuals. Suffice to say, there was a great deal of nerdy gear/production talk amongst the banter.

The evening was presented by Shaun Keaveny who was on fine form, and I found myself seated next to Georgie Rogers – BBC 6 Music’s roving reporter and a presenter in her own right. We discussed how vital 6 Music is to the scene, and how it seems scarcely credible that it was nearly axed a few years ago. I bent Georgie’s ear with my gripe that there’s not enough new blood being allowed through: large chunks of the schedule remaining dominated by the same people (who have been there playing the same music since the beginning and were originally shuffled over from Radio 1). I believe fresher talent should be allowed more airtime and often find I enjoy guest presenters more than some regulars. It requires great energy to spend a decade or more presenting the same show and to remain vital and current.

Soundgas at MPG Awards

Dec & Joel try Strongroom’s award for size…

Diversity in the music business is improving, but studioland seems to still remain a male-dominated environment. It was very heartening to see more women amongst the attendees, nominees and winners; there was an all-female shortlist for Breakthrough Engineer Of The Year (won by Dani Bennett Spragg) which bodes well for the future.

It was great to see David Wrench win Mix Engineer Of The Year (again) for his work on the XX and David Byrne albums (amongst others) and Dilip Harris and I were laughing at the incongruity his being named Breakthrough Producer after so many years. Damon Albarn delivered a very refreshed presentation to UK Producer Of The Year James Ford (Arctic Monkeys Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino) and national treasure Jarvis Cocker was on hand to present Mandy Parnell with her richly-deserved award for Mastering Engineer Of The Year (again). Jo and I were delighted to announce Strongroom as winners of Studio Of The Year presented by Talvin Singh OBE. Soundgas plan to make a special presentation to Strongroom later this year in recognition of the vital role the studios play in the UK music scene and we’re looking at making an additional presentation for breakthrough engineer of the year.

Soundgas & Strongroom at MPG Awards

Strongroom & Soundgas

There were many notable guests and presenters, and I nearly fell off my chair to learn that Carlos Alomar was on Hugh Padgham’s table and had flown over especially to see Hugh pick up the Outstanding Contribution To UK Music Award presented by Peter Gabriel. I later spent a good twenty minutes talking studios and gear with Hugh at the after party (unsurprisingly there was a surfeit of gear/studio talk all evening – nerd heaven!).

The undoubted highlight of the evening was Kingsley Ward’s speech on behalf of his family and Rockfield Studios on receiving the Special Recognition Award. He informed us that they’d never won an award and that he had sixty years of acceptance speeches to cover in two minutes. A feat he spectacularly failed to achieve, only reaching 1973 by the time he was relieved of the podium following hilarious tales of he and his brother (a pair of Welsh farmers) journeying to see George Martin at EMI in London to play him their demos. They took their own reel to reel tape machine with them (not realising that he might already have such a facility). The good humoured reaction of the crowd inspired him to go well beyond the allotted two minutes, and I believe we’d have kept applauding and encouraging him to continue had he not been somewhat forcibly-removed by his wife and family. I wasn’t the only one doubled over in mirth; Shaun Keaveny nearly fell off the stage at least once during Kingsley’s speech.

This award and acceptance seemed to sum up the vibe of the MPG event for me: there was a great deal of warmth, and mutual respect and admiration amongst attendees. For a full rundown of who won what, see the MPG website, and if you’re eligible, I urge you to lend your support to their work while you’re there.

For further information about the Music Producers’ Guild (MPG) see below (from their website):

Who Are We?

The Music Producers Guild was conceived and is supported by producers, mixers, recording engineers, re-mixers and programmers who are passionate about all aspects of making and recording music. It is a not-for-profit company and is run by volunteers from the membership.

The achievements of this creative community are celebrated through the annual MPG Awards event, and we hope to stimulate development and evolution through the discussions and debate at our events and via the website.

We see it as providing a community for us to share our collective experience and collaborate with other like-minded people.

What Do We Do?

Formed as a Guild rather than a Trade Association, MPG has no party political agenda, but we do represent our community to government so that our voice is heard. We actively engage with other music industry organisations, to develop a dialogue about, and exert an influence upon, matters of mutual interest and benefit to our members and our industry.

We are…(amongst many others…):

Brian Eno  Cameron Blackwood  Catherine Marks Ethan Johns

Flood  Gil Norton  Jake Gosling  Mark Ronson

Mick Glossop  Nile Rodgers  Paul Epworth  John Leckie

Tom Dalgety  Tony Platt  Tony Visconti  Trevor Horn

Charlie Andrew  Mandy Parnell  David Wrench  Mark ‘Spike’ Stent

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Tony Miln is the co-founder (& Head Gear Head) of Soundgas. See/hear him in action on Instagram.

Save Our Culture! Abbey Road, Strongroom & Maida Vale

When it’s gone it’s gone. A recent meeting with the man instrumental in saving Abbey Road Studios from being flattened for development gets Tony thinking about what can be done to prevent other irretrievable losses of cultural history.

Last week we had the pleasure of meeting Peter Cobbin and Kirsty Whalley from Such Sweet Thunder when they visited Soundgas. The pair met while working at Abbey Road and are legends in the world of mixing sound for picture (2012 London Olympics – the largest multi-track recording ever made, assorted Harry Potters and Hobbits, 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics…).

Peter was the first engineer at Abbey Road to be recruited from outside EMI and was responsible for helping them see the value in their heritage at a time when they were hell bent on discarding old tech. One of the first things he encountered on his arrival there was a Fairchild being used as a doorstop.

He told us how he tracked down EMI’s last remaining TG desk; abandoned in three pieces in their Hayes storage facility. It’d been used by EMI Classical for recording concerts before being mothballed as being out of date (not the only time eyebrows were raised amongst the old guard techs when he asked to reinstate ‘obsolete’ gear). EMI pretty much ‘gave away’ the TG12345 MK IV from Studio Two used to record Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon (recently sold at auction for $1.8 million) and also the original Mk1 desk used to record The Beatles’ Abbey Road, amongst many other classics.

As chief engineer, he was instrumental in getting the studio and iconic zebra crossing listed as historic buildings, which helped save the studios when they were threatened with being sold off for residential development. It was a personal pleasure for me to shake the hand of the man who’d helped avert this potential act of cultural vandalism; a reminder of what occurs when businesses involved in the arts are in the hands of people who only see today’s bottom line rather than the wider picture. Peter also helped develop the excellent range of Abbey Road hardware manufactured by Chandler Limited, as well as working with Waves to create the Abbey Road range of plugins.

Tiring of the politics and meetings with bean counters, he struck out to set up Such Sweet Thunder with Kirsty, basing their set-up around a console of their own specification which sounds like it owes a debt to the first principles tech of Abbey Road, being based around a ‘simple’ analogue signal path (I hope to learn more about this soon). Given their background, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise to find they both embrace and value analogue so highly, but these days one tends to expect those in film sound to be working purely in the digital domain. Their enthusiasm and enjoyment on encountering the vintage gear caverns and studio at Soundgas was evident and they were soon at work in the studio comparing some Soundgas gear for possible use on a forthcoming project.

For me, Peter’s background and experience is about as fascinating as it gets and I could have listened to his stories of Abbey Road for a good deal longer than we had time for (we barely touched on the subject of working from original Beatles master tapes). I’m looking forward to their next visit very much.

#savestrongroom

The subject of closing important creative spaces is very dear to my heart. The UK has already sleepwalked into allowing too many precious and historic studios and venues to be demolished to satisfy developers’ insatiable appetites. That Abbey Road was once under this type of threat seems scarcely credible, but the current planning application that is casting a shadow over Strongroom’s future, and the BBC’s announcement last year that they are to abandon Maida Vale to development, are two further examples of myopic decision making that blight our musical landscape and heritage.

 

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WE NEED YOUR HELP! https://you.38degrees.org.uk/petitions/save-strongroom (link also in bio) Some of you may have heard the news that we received word of a planning application submitted to Hackney Council, proposing the construction of a giant 6-storey block along our joining wall at 118 Curtain Road. The proposed demolition and construction is estimated to take 18 months. 18 months of dust, debris, endless drilling and of course loud noise and low frequency vibration. This level of disturbance would almost certainly put our studios out of business, displace the many wonderful producers and companies we have based here and the finished construction would cast our beautiful courtyard in a constant shadow. Having aided the regeneration of Shoreditch in fierce support of independent businesses, we remain strong and defiant, protective of our wonderful community and thankfully busier than ever. Does Shoreditch really need another ugly office block to benefit a Guernsey-based corporation? We ask you to stand with us and save culture over big business. Save communities and support creativity. With your help we saved AIR Studios, and now we ask you again, please #SAVESTRONGROOM What can you do to help? ↓ Sign and share this petition to absolutely everybody you can: https://you.38degrees.org.uk/petitions/save-strongroom (link also in bio) Read more about the threat over at the Financial Times (https://on.ft.com/2MOIr2X) and Resolution Magazine (https://bit.ly/2KMDCq3) and share those articles. Many thanks to both publications for standing with us. Join us in lobbying the following to protect longstanding, independent businesses: Hackney Council, Sadiq Khan Mayor of London, Diane Abbott MP for Hackney, Matt Hancock – Secretary of State for DCM&S, James Brokenshire – Secretary of State for GLC, Greg Clark – Secretary of State for BE&IS Use the #SAVESTRONGROOM hashtag to help us gather all your support and keep the conversation growing. Thank you from the bottom of our hearts, Strongroom

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The campaign to #savestrongroom is ongoing and still needs your support on twitter, and instagram: if you haven’t written to object, please do so now – an email is fine…

 

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It’s not too late to #savestrongroom – the deadline to email your objections to Hackney Council about planning application 2018/0363 is tomorrow. . Please act to help avoid yet another act of cultural vandalism – unless you feel London needs more luxury flats and less places to record and produce music… . DO IT NOW!!! . Dear Sirs I wish to object to planning application 2018/0363 which threatens the future of one of this country’s most important creative centres: Strongroom Studios. Music contributes hugely to the UK economy and to our cultural identity and sense of community. Strongroom is a vital part of this vibrant and essential national industry. To replace such a valuable asset without due consideration to wider implications would be grossly-irresponsible and I urge you to refuse this application Yours Tony Miln Director, Soundgas Limited

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#saveMaidaVale

The status of Maida Vale is less clear as I write. When the BBC announced their plans to close this important space, there was a brief outcry and reports back in 2018, plus a campaign to #SaveMaidaVale on Twitter supported by Nigel Godrich and Geoff Barrow; but as I searched for fresh information online today there is precious little to be heard from many people, beyond this tweet that sums up what is at stake so well (note there was no reply from BBC 6 Music’s Mark Riley to what Nigel said…):

nigel godrich save maida vale

At the time BBC Director Lord Hall said, “I understand how much our musical heritage at Maida Vale means to us, to artists and to audiences,” – words which ring pretty hollow when you actually start to look at what has happened to this space.

The BBC’s Maida Vale complex housed the Radiophonic Workshop and is where the Dr Who theme was composed. It is where countless bands have played seminal live performances for broadcast including Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, and Radiohead. The history of the Peel Sessions recorded there for John Peel’s Radio One shows alone are a powerful reason to preserve this space as a place artists and fans alike can come to soak up the atmosphere, but it’s not just about history. In a city besieged by developers building properties that will contribute little to the cultural life of London, this great venue has a vital role to play in today’s music scene. Do we want a desolate cityscape, devoid of inhabitants and patrolled by security vans protecting empty properties, or a place where our music and culture can thrive? Because this is one area that Britain can still, right now, lay claim to the epithet ‘Great’.

The BBC have form on sketchy decisions to axe important and valued institutions – it seems scarcely credible today that they considered ditching the influential and popular radio station 6 Music back in 2010. It’s disappointing that more musicians and presenters (whose careers have benefited from playing Peel or other Maida Vale Sessions, and from BBC Radio support) have not been more vocal in their opposition, but perhaps it’s a case of not biting the hand that feeds…

In fairness the BBC are far from free of government pressure; they have to be seen to be modernising, the operating hours of the complex are already constrained by its location, and they have to balance the books (renovating the building and removing asbestos would not be cheap); but surely there’s an opportunity and cultural value that goes far beyond the base value of Maida Vale’s real estate?

Today it seems inconceivable that we nearly lost Abbey Road and 6 Music; and it’s beyond tragic that we’ve already lost so many special recording spaces like Olympic and Townhouse. Fast forward twenty years and imagine explaining to the next generation how the buildings that housed the Radiophonic Workshop, where so many seminal recorded performances took place, and which were a source of such cultural enrichment, were allowed to be turned into yet more dead investment properties.

For more about Maida Vale the Sound On Sound article is full of good stuff. And for a recent, intimate look behind the scenes, look inside this remarkable building – this blog from Mark Urban from Monochrome Set is well worth a look. This photo below is from that post:

bing crosby maida vale

Over 10,000 people have signed a petition to save Maida Vale on Change.org, but this should be many more.

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Thanks for reading. Please take the time to help out these campaigns. And if you know of similar things happening where you are then get in touch via social media or the comments below and we will do what we can to spread the word!

Peter Cobbin Kirsty Whalley Soundgas Studio

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Tony Miln is the co-founder (& Head Gear Head) of Soundgas. See/hear him in action on Instagram.

The People’s Polysynth: Tony Miln shows some love for the Roland Juno

I first laid hands on a synth in 1981 – a very brief ‘go’ on an older boy’s MS-10 (I was shown how to do the intro to Silver Machine by Hawkwind – great excitement). However, living in rural Derbyshire, transport was more important to this teenager than playing space rock anthems, and funds went on a succession of motorbikes and cars. My pals in Sheffield with its 2p bus fares could spend any spare money on wondrous noise making devices.

In 1987, I wandered into Carlsbro Sound Centre in Mansfield to finally buy a synth: I was sold a Yamaha DX21 for around £350. It was a very long way from the synth I had in mind to make crazy whooshing space noises, but I was very green and was firmly ‘advised’ that it was the best on the market. I was told that the new Yamahas were more advanced and that everybody was trading in their old synths to get one (with a derisive gesture towards a pile of abandoned keyboards that’d be a treasure trove today). Had I been more savvy, I could have picked up a VCS3, Synthi AKS or Jupiter 8 for the same price – or less – but I duly walked out of the store with my new technical marvel. After I’d got over the initial excitement of these shiny new sounds available at the press of a button, I began to try and edit noises. It gradually dawned on me that this sleek design, reliant on the absence of old fashioned sliders, switches and knobs, was at the expense of the user’s enjoyment. The DX thwarted my synth explorations for a further 4 years…

Roland Juno-106

I’ve never really forgiven Yamaha for the DX range – sonically or for being so obtuse. I finally, grudgingly, admitted that I ‘got it’ after we had a pristine ex-Abbey Road DX-1 in here at Soundgas, and I’m starting to think I might buy a Volca FM, but I remain firmly in the pre-digital camp when it comes to synths. I still find the (admittedly few) new synths I try somehow lacking after getting past the initial wow of those first presets. Joe Mount of Metronomy said in an interview that old synths know their place and leave space in a track, whereas new ones don’t sit well with ‘real’ instruments.

Returning to synths in the early 90s, we kitted out our studio with an MS-10 (though I always wanted a 20) and Moog Prodigy (alongside the inevitable JV2080), but it was my finding an old Roland HS-60 (cheaper Juno 106 with speakers made for the domestic market) that at last started the ball rolling for me and synthesis. I’m not the most technical of musicians, preferring to feel my way with an instrument; only RTFM if I have to (hard copy – analogue all the way!). Finally, here was a synth that even I could understand – and one that seemed unable to make a bad sound – no matter how ham-fisted the ‘player’. It didn’t matter that my playing was terrible – we could edit and sequence it via Midi and an Atari computer; it even had Midi control of the sliders for recording and playback of filter sweeps etc.

Juno-106

I eventually sold my HS60-badged 106 after a couple of happy decades of faultless use (though two voice chips failed after I opened it up to take photos for the listing and decided to vacuum out the dust inside beforehand!). I’d found an earlier, less technologically-advanced Juno and had fallen for it completely. The Juno 60 became the one for me: an arpeggiator is more important than Midi to me now, and there is a warmth to the sound that suits my taste.

The Roland Juno is a very democratic synth: I brought a 106S (Japanese version of the HS60) home this Christmas and my 8 year old son loves it. As do I – I’ve been noodling away on it with a little Korg SQ-1 (to make up for the lack of arpeggiator) and it has reawakened my love for the 106. You can find your way on a Juno without any fear – or prior synth knowledge – and happily stumble across stunning sounds. A great instrument inspires you to create; it encourages and elicits better performances from you: a Juno is a truly great synth. Whichever model you choose, be it 6, 60 or 106, I guarantee it will always bring a smile to your face – they are a joy to play.

Thanks for reading. More to come soon, going deeper into the Juno family.

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All the Juno-106s pictured are examples we have sold. We can source excellent examples, and they are supplied serviced and future-proofed with all voice chips replaced, power supply recapped and set up for 120 or 240v use.

We usually have a 106 listed or being worked on – if you don’t see one available here on our site, get in touch now to discuss your requirements.

Roland Juno-6 Juno-60 Juno-106

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Tony Miln is the co-founder (& Head Gear Head) of Soundgas. See/hear him in action on Instagram.

Nils Frahm Live Rig Tour

In which Tony meets Nils Frahm and his Junos and RE-501s, and Nils meets a Soundgas Binson, and The Magic Typewriter…

UPDATE: since this was published we also met Nils in Manchester. Scroll to the bottom for a couple of new videos from that trip. Next stop: Funkhaus Berlin….

Barely a day goes by when I don’t consider how lucky we are to live and work in the hills of Derbyshire; beautiful countryside, peaceful villages, miles away from the noise and pollution of urban life. But being a hundred-plus miles from London does have its disadvantages: we miss most of the one-off gigs and special events that tend to only happen in the metropolis. Not so this month: a week ago last Friday I got to hang out with Mike D, Adrock and Mixmaster Mike at the brilliant and funny Beastie Boys Book event, courtesy of our good friend and customer, Phillipe Zdar of Cassius/La Funk Mob (who produced their album ‘Hot Sauce Committee Part Two’ and had just been recording Hot Chip at his Motorbass Studio in Paris). And last Wednesday we were back in London at the Eventim Apollo to meet Nils Frahm before his second London show. So much for the quiet life…

Having kids, spending less time in the city (and on the dancefloor) has led to a growing appreciation of less frenetic music than a decade or two ago, and a label we love here at Soundgas is Robert Raths’ Erased Tapes. We all love the label’s RE-501 and Juno 60-meister himself, Nils Frahm, and his music is on regular rotation on our office and home listening. So his purchase of a finely-restored Roland SH-5 from Soundgas was met with great excitement, even more so when he got in touch to say he wanted to talk Binsons and suggested we meet before his show at the Apollo last week ‘for a chat and personal gear tour.’

As Soundgas has grown from one-man-in-a-studio to a team of twelve across two buildings, I’ve ended up spending more time in the office at a computer, rather than getting out making personal deliveries and meeting our customers, so I jumped at the chance offered by Nils’ warm invitation. Jo and I duly set out with a boot full of gear early last Wednesday, bound for the Hammersmith Apollo (as it used to be known).

On arrival we were warmly welcomed by Nils and his team and soon found ourselves treading the hallowed stage for a close look at Nils’ incredible live set up. Nils bought his first Roland Juno 60 aged 14 (for 100DM – about £50) and they are much-loved for their distinctive arpeggiator and sound (though ‘not the Chorus II setting’!) and I knew there’d be one on the stage, but wasn’t prepared to see three – ‘the best-sounding out of the nine I’ve owned’. One of them has a distinctive custom finish in white; this courtesy of the Royal Albert Hall where a mishap resulted in one of his 60s requiring replacement with this one.

I was of course aware of Nils’ preference for the Roland RE-501, but was amazed to count no less than five of the venerable Chorus Echoes (he owns eleven!) carefully-positioned around the stage. He explained that he relies heavily on his tech, Sebastian, and on Shane Fritsch’s Echo Fix tapes and parts to ensure his 501s run smoothly.

Nils Frahm live set up

The piano tuner, Carsten, was nearly done tuning the Yamaha grand piano (fitted with a Helpinstill piano pickup as well as being mic’d up) and Nils asked if we’d like a demo? I couldn’t say yes quickly enough. Within moments, I was being given a run-through of how everything links together and we were getting a personal performance. Definitely one of the best ‘I love my job’ moments I’ve had.

Below the white Juno 60 was a mystery keyboard that Nils explained was a midi controller used to trigger the samples of a wind organ that his team had built for live use but was unsuited to life on the road – ‘and the samples sound pretty much as good’. This has been carefully programmed with a recreation of his beloved Juno arpeggiator, and the Junos have also been modified so he can quickly switch between internal and external control of the arpeggiator to great effect. Below these is his ‘Mellowtron’ M400 which has various modifications to the motor, not only to improve tuning stability whatever the temperature, but also to select between one octave up or one/two down (which sounds stunning), as well as having an onboard LFO for modulation.

Nils’ live sound is, as with his recordings, all about attention to detail – I suggested ‘perfection’, but he answered ‘perfection from imperfect things?!’ I am so often sonically disappointed seeing live shows – so many artists go to great lengths to create stunning-sounding records, only to opt for the convenience of software or digital emulations rather than the real thing and the results are almost invariably a sonic ‘meh’. With Nils, every single detail is a joy to hear and the whole is very much greater than the sum of its parts. I’d expected it to sound good, but was completely blown away by just how powerful the massed ranks of acoustic and analogue gear sounded in full and glorious flight. To witness, at close quarters, Nils dancing and diving about his equipment – clearly a master of his instruments – was mesmerising: his hands and fingers a blur of movement as he twisted and tweaked settings and played accompanying riffs on the Fender Rhodes.

I was struck by how superb the reverb sounded and asked what he was using; he pointed to a rack underneath the Rhodes – an EMT 245 with a Dynacord VRS-23 above it! No wonder it sounds so staggeringly good! In my position as champion for the Good Old Stuff, my bias is undeniable, but ears don’t lie and this was a reverb sound to die for. I understand more than most why many artists don’t risk using esoteric vintage equipment live, but when they do the results can be outstanding. We saw Arctic Monkeys recently – their set up was almost exclusively vintage gear that most would only countenance for studio use (including Alex’s trio of amps supplied by us, and three RE-201s that we ended up servicing before they headed out to the US). And they sounded great.

Nils Frahm, Tony Miln, Binson Echorec

It soon became apparent that Nils and I we were kindred spirits with a shared love of and appreciation for the sounds and feel of real instruments and effects that predate the modern era of gear built to a price point by machines. The combined sound of a stage full of individual pieces with soul and personality is unforgettable, and all too rare today. I’d been curious as to the source of Nils’ drum sounds and spied the bank of twin Vermona DRM1s alongside his mixing desk. The warm 808-esque kick, triggered by foot switch, came from a diminutive (in stature rather than sound) MFB analogue drum machine. Next to the foot switch are his Moog Taurus pedals. Above this, and between the two Juno 60s, is a Roland SH-2 synced to the other synths, receiving plenty of tweaking attention to great effect.

Nils Frahm - Binson Echorec

All too soon, the whirlwind display was over, and we set to showing Nils a couple of Soundgas Binsons which he demoed using one of the onstage Juno 60s. Unfortunately, the only super-slow varispeed Echorec 2 that we had available hadn’t yet reached a satisfactory conclusion: it had undergone a good deal of work, but it transpired that nothing short of a total rebuild was going to yield the performance we expected. So Nils had another varispeed Echorec 2 to try out and immediately commented that it sounded way better than his own. A quick listen to our studio Super Slow Baby Binson was enough to demo the principle and we resolved to find the right Echorec 2 in future.

 

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Great to meet @nils_frahm and his crew at the @eventimapollo this afternoon; fascinating to see his set up. Here he gets acquainted with a Soundgas Binson Echorec 2… #nilsfrahm

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Then it was time for the ‘Magic Typewriter’, our Dynacord Echocord Studio, modified by Dr Huw with Super Slow Varispeed. I explained to Nils and Sebastian that we are still working on further mods, on a second machine, that incorporates being able to lift the erase and record heads from the disc, thereby allowing both Sound On Sound effects as well as looping. We also hope to be able to reverse the motor for backwards looping effects. This was something of a revelation – nobody had seen an Echocord Studio before and it’s fair to say that this machine was of great interest.

 

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Nils meets The Magic Typewriter… 

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Nils Frahm live set up

All too soon it was time for the soundcheck and for us to leave the crew to continue preparations for the gig. That night we witnessed a staggering live performance, full of drama (thanks to the Vermonas which wiped their Midi CC memory and had to be restored in the middle of an impromptu piano piece), wit and energy, and we reconvened for a lively after show celebration until it was time for everyone to get back on the tour bus. An unforgettable night, with many new friends made and plans to meet again in February when the tour hits Manchester: perhaps with the SH-5 installed as part of the live show…

Our thanks to Nils, the crew and also to Robert Raths and all at Erased Tapes for their warmth and hospitality.

Nils Frahm live

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Tony Miln is the co-founder (& Head Gear Head) of Soundgas. See/hear him in action on Instagram.

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UPDATE! UPDATE! UPDATE!

On the 17th of February this year we met up with Nils again, this time before the show at Manchester’s Albert Hall. We took more Binsons and other gear for him to try, he totally fell for our ’73 Minimoog, and we got some pretty special footage of part of the soundcheck. We’ll add some more photos and video when we do a part 2 to this blog, but that needs to wait until we’ve been and seen his studio in Funkhaus Berlin (soon…). For now here are a couple of the videos from the Manchester trip:

 

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Big piano. Tiny piano. Junos, 501s, a Mellotron & an EMT 244… Last one from Sunday’s Manchester mission. At some point we’ll do a blog about some of what we found as we got to poke around in this monster set up, as well as what we discussed with Nils and his engineer including his studio, Moog vs Roland, and modifying Roland Junos and tape echoes. Huge thanks go out to him and his tight-knit tour family for making us feel so welcome. . #nilsfrahm #vfgear #synthstagram #vintagesynth #juno60 #soundgas #supersonicgear

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’73 Minimoog. Game over. . . #moog #minimoog #vintagesynth #synthstagram

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Dynacord Echocord Studio: In Search Of The Magic Typewriter…

Welcome to Story Time with Tony…

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I shall begin. I’d heard whispered rumours of a Dynacord echo that with a flat spinning disc instead of tape, but as my searches yielded no further information, I put it down to being just another vintage gear tall tale.

That was until a year or two later, when I happened upon what appeared to be a very stylish sixties typewriter, housed in a modest two tone carry case. Where a typewriter would ordinarily have a set of keys, this elegant machine had but a handful of buttons and knobs. A symphony of understated sixties German design, sporting classy curved lines with only discrete symbols denoting the various controls’ functions, it bore the legend, ‘Dynacord Echocord Studio’. My search was over and this beast was mythical no more. It was, however, in a pretty bad way and unlikely to be of much practical use without a full overhaul and even then there was doubt as to whether the disc/heads would pass muster.

Dynacord Echocord Studio

Dynacord Echocord Studio

The Echocord Studio and I are of a similar vintage. Introduced in 1966, it remained in production for two years, during which time only around 500 units were made. As it cost about a third of the price of a Volkswagen Beetle, this was certainly not a machine designed to weather the rigours of life on the road. It’s serious demeanour is a testament to its purpose as a high end studio piece.

The Doctor Will See You Now

Here at Soundgas, singular rare electromechanical devices requiring specialist attention tend to languish in Dr Huw’s waiting room for very long time. This is especially true if they’re most likely to be retained by me for our studio ‘research’ purposes. Soundgas service department resources are stretched thin (if only you could clone techs), so anything we are considering keeping in the studio ranks below gear for our customers. So I was about to resign myself to a long wait to hear a fully-functional Echocord Studio when I was almost immediately offered two more that were in excellent condition. Better than busses it seems, Studios come in threes.

This was an exciting development: three examples made it worth investing Dr Huw’s valuable time in the Echocord Studio project, and they were duly entered on his medium term projects list. The second two units were in quite exceptional condition and, following initial inspection, it was reported that they could indeed be viable for restoration.

Dynacord Echocord Studio

Discrete Germaniac

Even so, this proved a not inconsiderable task for our echo doctor: the Studio is a discrete device dating from the mid sixties, and the many boards are populated with capacitors that are well past their sell by date (see photos at the end of this article to see original caps bulging away). Some machines use all germanium transistors, and later ones a mix of germanium and silicon. While germanium transistors are much-lauded for their sound, especially when pushed into distortion, the passage of time has taken its toll and many are out of spec and very noisy. While none of this is beyond the good doctor’s wit, the flat ferrous oxide-coated disc with six heads resting lightly on the spinning recording medium, is a unique design and spare parts are unobtanium.

A Bad Case

Fortuitously, or perhaps not, we were about to receive a whole machine’s worth of spares. As one of the mint condition units was being carried over to our tech department, the carrying handle of the original case gave way, rudely introducing the very heavy and delicate machine to the tarmac of our car park at some velocity. The results were a completely smashed irreplaceable plastic lid, somewhat twisted outer casing, and a very red-faced junior technician who was suitably mortified at the carnage. Over the years, by accident or error, I’ve caused more damage to vintage equipment than most, so was sanguine about the mishap and told him not to worry as we now had a fine selection of spares to restore the other two machines. This proved especially handy when we later acquired a fourth unit, again in need of extra parts. The moral of the story is don’t ever trust old carrying handles…

Dynacord Echocord Studio

Rise From Your Grave

Here at Soundgas, it’s not uncommon for restorations to be measured in years rather than weeks or months, especially if the gear is very old, unusual or just in a particularly bad way. It’s one of the hardest parts of running a business specialising in crumbling edge tech. Tying up much-needed cash in such gear for long periods makes little sense from a pure business perspective, but it is what keeps things interesting and is very much part of our raison d’être. There is more than financial value in granting an operational reprieve to a fine vintage machine such as an Echocord Studio – rather than consigning it to an electronic graveyard; and being able to add it to our roster of possible future rescues and repairs is always cause for quiet celebration. This is at the heart of our mission: to search the outer reaches of vintage gear and discover and bring back the otherwise irredeemable.

See the photos at the end of this post for a selection of shots from the restoration process.

Spinning Wheel

To receive the first fully-functioning unit back from Dr Huw less than six months later was a joy, and vindicated the decision to gamble on that first unpromising machine. It was also very much a revelation: I’ve had many electromechanical echoes over the years, including several other designs using a coated disc rather than tape (or a Binson’s wire-wrapped metal drum), and they have all had a unique and enjoyable sound, but this was in another league entirely.

Dynacord Echocord Studio

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The Echocord Studio’s combination of discrete circuitry, germanium preamps and sixties Teutonic over-engineered build quality, add up to a very special and truly unique machine. The four playback heads can be used in various gratifying combinations, and the two-speed motor – engaged by a large switch on the right hand side with a very pleasing action – offers an excellent range of echo possibilities. The little black and white dial on top of the disc, visible through the small circular viewing window atop the unit, offers a delightful visual representation of the machine’s status.

Blink And You’ll Miss It

The sound of this first unit was stunning: it possessed all the qualities one could wish for in a good analogue echo, with a reverb-like swell as well as excellent repeats and sounding superb when overdriven, thanks to those now-tamed germanium transistors. Dr Huw had done a fine job; it was not noticeably noisier in operation than other good examples of well-restored tape echoes, and I was utterly-captivated. The ability to mix four input signals with individual control of bass and treble (via wheels above the input sockets), and the dry and wet amounts for each channel, made for a flexible and powerful processor.

Sadly, the insatiable demands of a cash-hungry growing business meant it was for sale and sold within a matter of days, and it was to be another year before Dr Huw’s schedule would permit the next machine to live again.

Go Slow

It’s been quite a tumultuous and hectic twelve months at Soundgas, with many rapid changes in our evolution that have impacted on our ability to deliver the very best in vintage gear. One of the most significant being the decision to invest a great deal of Dr Huw’s precious time in developing and improving our Binson restorations, including our super slow varispeed motor modification. As a result, the remaining two potentially viable Echocord Studios have stood neglected all this time.

Finally, a month or so ago, we were able to recommence Dr Huw’s Echocord Studio restoration project, but this time with the exciting news that it could be possible to modify the next one with the same super-slow varispeed motor option as used in our Binson Echorecs. Again this required a good deal of extra bench time to bring to fruition, but the result was well worth it. Dr Huw’s carefully thought out design niftily incorporates the varispeed control into the original side-mounted switch which controls the rotary pot from on/off through very slow to faster repeats. The finished machine was duly tested to great approval and offered for sale via our weekly mail out.

There Can Be Only One

Having listed the finished machine, we immediately set it to work in the Soundgas Studio on a session, using it to add detuned ambience on some dark string parts being processed for a soundtrack. It proved an absolute joy to use; the varispeed implementation is seamless and feels integral to the original design (which it surely would have been had the technology at the time allowed).

After only an hour at work, it became very apparent that we had something truly special in our hands: a one-of-a-kind sound-processing device that is as pleasing to play as it is sonically. There was a chance that this initial soundtrack session could develop into an ongoing project: how could we sell this machine that was, at that moment, the star turn?

Here are two more instagram posts featuring that machine:

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Soundgas It! Your sounds through our gear… . Before and after… . @wayoutgentleman and @pipe.uk working on @ethermachines’ beautiful string parts from series one of Dark. . Gear at work includes the Publison Infernal Machine and our unique Dynacord Echocord Studio. 

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This Dynacord Echocord Studio has had a total rebuild and very nifty super-slow varispeed modification by Dr Huw here at Soundgas. The next batch of our PsycoX Syncussion clones are nearly ready.

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Out Of Reach

It’s not an easy decision to remove from sale something that is the result of eighteen months’ investment, but it had to be done. So this extraordinary individual Echocord Studio now resides in the Soundgas Studio as part of our armoury of very special sound processing devices that are at our customers’ disposal via our remote studio access facility.

This is not the end of the story: we still have one viable machine, currently on Dr Huw’s bench and well on the way to completion with a full varispeed modification (and wet-only output) which should be available via the mailing list very soon: sign up to be informed when it’s ready. You won’t regret it – I rate the varispeed Echocord Studio as one of the finest and most playable echo machines I’ve had the privilege of using.

And if you have an odd cream-coloured typewriter-shaped device languishing unused in a forgotten corner, please do get in touch: we’d welcome the chance to acquire further examples for Dr Huw to work his magic on. We regret however that the amount of work required to resurrect these machines means we are currently unable to undertake service work on machines other than our own.

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Tony Miln is the co-founder (& Head Gear Head) of Soundgas. See/hear him in action on Instagram.

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Those electronically-minded individuals who wish to know more about the design, can find the schematic here.

All photos and information Copyright Soundgas Limited 2018 – if you want to repost some of what is here please ask and we will usually give permission if credit is given. And if you link to this post then tell us and we will give you a mention on social media!

More shots of the internals and restoration process below. This first one is just some of the out of spec capacitors that Huw had to remove from one machine!

Caps from Dynacord

Dynacord Echocord Studio

Dynacord Echocord Studio

 

Dynacord Echocord Studio

Dynacord Echocord Studio

Dynacord Echocord Studio

Binson Echorec Varispeed Modification

Guide to Binson Echorec Varispeed Modifications

We now offer varispeed modification on most of the Binson Echorecs we we sell. But, if a standard Echorec was considered adequate for Barrett, Gilmour, and Page, why would you modify a vintage Echorec with a variable speed motor? This article covers some of the “why” and also takes a look at the “how” of augmenting vintage Binsons…

Binson Echorecs were all manufactured with a fixed speed motor and Binson founder, Dr Bonfiglio Bini, together with his principal engineer, Scarano Gaetano, created something very special with their considerations for the fixed head spacings of the Binson Echorec.

The four playback heads on an Echorec 2 offer delay times of approximately 75ms, 150ms, 225ms, and 300ms. Dr Bini chose these spacings to create musically-related delay times: if the longest delay tap is a quarter note, then head three is a dotted eighth note, head two is an eight note, and the first head a sixteenth note. The shorter repeats are perfect for classic slapback delays, as heard on countless rock’n’roll and rockabilly records (and much beloved of John Lennon for his vocal sound). U2’s The Edge created his signature sound using patterns akin to the longer two heads on the Echorec 2.

The longer rhythmic delay intervals are extremely inspiring and can be heard on many classic Pink Floyd recordings from the early days with Syd Barrett, through to Dark Side Of The Moon and beyond. Pete Townshend told me how he’d wanted an Echorec ever since he saw Syd play with the Floyd at the UFO Club in 1967. According to Pete, Syd played one chord into two Echorecs and the band jammed along for half an hour to the resulting oscillations…

Here’s how a good Echorec T7E should sound:

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Watching Pink Floyd Live At Pompeii, you witness Echorecs employed by David Gilmour on guitar, Roger Waters on bass (‘One Of These Days’ owes it’s opening bass riff to the Echorec) and Richard Wright on keyboards. Indeed this film is essential viewing for anyone asking themselves why they want to buy a vintage Binson Echorec. Many of Gilmour’s guitar parts, and Pink Floyd’s songs rely heavily on the rhythms created by the fixed-head repeats of their Binson Echorecs.

This caused some trouble when, on arriving in the USA to tour, they found running European Binsons at a US mains frequency of 60hz resulted in significantly-shorter delay times and thus faster tempos. Phil Taylor (David Gilmour and Pink Floyd’s long-serving guitar tech and curator of Floyd gear) told me how he had to stay up all night after the first rehearsal modifying the head spacings on all their Binsons so they’d play at the correct tempo for the American tour!

Echorecs manufactured for the US export market (under the Guild name) had motors with smaller diameter spindles which altered gearing ratio to retain the signature Binson tempo. A European Binson will play around 20% faster in the USA, and a US export machine about 20% slower in Europe.

It’s not just guitarists who found inspiration in those distinctive Binson Echorec echoes: Jimmy Page employed one on John Bonham’s drum kit when recording Led Zeppelin IV at Headley Grange. While that now-legendary stairwell played a big part in the epic drum sound on ‘When The Levee Breaks’, it was a Binson’s repeats that inspired and contributed to Bonzo’s famous rhythm.

Why Modify A Binson Echorec With Varispeed?

If a standard Echorec was considered adequate for Syd Barrett, David Gilmour, Pink Floyd, Jimmy Page and Led Zeppelin, why would you wish to modify a vintage Echorec with a variable speed motor?

While in the fifties, sixties and seventies, it was quite normal for an echo to have a fixed repeat rate, today’s musicians are used to being able to ‘tune’ their delay repeats to the song tempo. Indeed a variable speed motor opens up the potential of these machines – enabling them to lend their distinctive sound to songs played at a wider range of tempos.

Put simply, it widens the scope of what’s possible from a Binson Echorec, and with the significant cost of buying a well-restored example, it makes sense to not be limited by a fixed speed motor.

Below are a couple of our demos with modified machines. Scroll to the bottom of this article for more.

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A very special head on a very special Binson. This Baby is a rebuild project Dr Huw has been working on. This is the wet-only output (some of the original signal remains – we need to add a buffer amp circuit to remove all traces, which is the next step) on the slowest setting on the super-slow varispeed (see how slowly the disc is turning). For some reason (to be investigated), head four adds a great metallic clanging tone to the repeats that I just love. Looks like this one will have to join the Soundgas Studio collection, but don’t worry – Dr Huw has a couple more Baby rebuilds coming soon.

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Dr Huw’s favourite super-slow Baby Binson Echorec is about to go on a long journey. Here @declan_kitts and @joel_kidd bid a fond farewell with the input cranked for that unmistakeable saturated Binson sound. Using a slower disc speed setting means a loss of fidelity, but there’s magic down in those depths… Take good care of our Baby, @_jeremyt

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A couple of clips of the MPC-1 and varispeed Binson (swipe for the second clip). The MPC-1 is working, but needs a service – should sound much better. The Binson is just undergoing final testing – super slow varispeed is sounding good.

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How Do You Varispeed A Binson Echorec?

I’ve been researching varispeeding Echorecs for almost as long as I’ve had one of my own. The late, great, Eric Snowball of ESE Music used to use a (now unavailable) Trident motor for his varispeed conversions, but at the time I couldn’t afford that option. I’ve worked with several Binson engineers over the years, a couple of whom had their own solutions, but who were not prepared to share that knowledge further.

One simple solution is if you own a machine with a DC motor – many of the later solid state models had these fitted as standard. These motors can be fitted with a variable speed control with very minimal additional work and run very well.

However, it’s the classic valve machines which are of the most interest to many people and these are fitted with AC motors: varispeed conversion requires the fitting of a new motor and varispeed control. This is a not-inconsiderable operation and many factors have to be taken into account when designing an appropriate solution, for example torque, motor noise, size and reliability.

Some engineers’ solutions involve modifying the Echorec chassis to fit a new motor – our standard varispeed option uses a motor that requires some chassis modification. Some time ago, I asked our in-house echo guru, Dr Huw, to investigate the definitive Binson varispeed solution. We knew we wanted a reliable and stable motor that did not require any modification to the chassis of the Echorec, and that it needed to run reasonably-quietly as well as performing well at very low speeds.

After a great deal of experimentation and much time spent trying and discarding various potential motors, Dr Huw came to me with what is now our Super-Slow Binson Varispeed Motor. This motor runs stably down to a virtual standstill. Naturally at greatly-reduced speeds, the bias changes to the point of significant loss of fidelity and ability to oscillate. In other words, it gets properly gnarly when pushed into distortion at slow speed and should be viewed as being for experimental sound design rather than extremely laid-back Shadows covers. This is precisely why I pushed for a super-slow motor: regular users don’t need to venture that low down the dial – it offers the full functionality of a standard varispeed – but has the added appeal of the super-slow speeds for longer, darker, dirtier repeats.

At seriously slow speeds, you get to hear the individual nuances of each head and preamp – heads that appear very well-matched at regular speeds reveal their character at the low speeds – on some machines this can result in strange metallic resonances. Anything that adds an extra flavour option into the mix.

So if you’re a guitarist wanting to use your Binson Echorec in the more traditional manner, you may find our regular varispeed serves you perfectly well, but if you occasionally veer off onto darker, stranger musical paths, maybe the Super-Slow option makes more sense for you. And if you’re into sound design, electronic or experimental music, then it’s a no-brainer: pair it with our wet-only output modification and marvel at the dark sound of a wire-wrapped drum passing the heads ponderously.

If you want to know more or discuss which machine is best for your needs then get in touch. See some of our Echorecs for sale here, however many of our Binson machines are serviced and modified to order – contact us to find out what we have in the Doctor’s waiting room now.

More Super-Slow demos below. For more background and information – check out our other Binson Echorec Resources.

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Tony Miln is the co-founder (& Head Gear Head) of Soundgas. See/hear him in action on Instagram.

 

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The quest for (im)perfection continues… We’ve been working through some new varispeed options for Binson Echorecs. Many users expect something that adds flexibility without significantly degrading the sound quality, and most of our conversions keep things firmly in that territory. However, some recent machines have featured motors that run at lower speeds. Naturally this results in less fidelity and fewer repeats as the speed reduces. This certainly won’t be to everyone’s taste, but for those who want a wider palette of options, then an ultra slow motor could be interesting. Dr Huw called me into his workshop just before we headed home for the weekend to show me this: a very exciting development. This Sound City Echomaster should be ready to go soon – we need to run some tests, but I think it’ll be a lot of fun and capable of taking things into very dark and dirty territory …

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Can you make #techno with just two pieces of gear and one finger? What would be your choices for a minimal set-up? Baby Binson and Korg 700S works for me…

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Proper weird and wonky beats with the MPC-1 and a gnarly super-slow varispeed Binson Echorec 2.

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Soundgas Studio Services Update

Soundgas Studio Racks

Soundgas Studio Services Update: First Audio Demos Released, Limited Slots Now Available

Our remote access studio service is getting closer to full launch, but the news is that we now have limited slots available each month – thanks to our engineer, Ben Hirst, and also to our fine beta testers who’ve sent us some amazing music to work on. The studio is very nearly complete – as a studio full of vintage gear ever can be – and we’re super-excited about the range of material we’ve been asked to work on. This has included the studio’s first paid session – processing some wild noises and music for a forthcoming film soundtrack – and also being asked to submit a dub mix idea for an international artist’s new album. Another delighted beta-test customer has asked us to work on stems for his next EP.

We’re now editing the stems down into bite-sized chunks for our new studio Soundcloud page so people can hear examples of what’s possible, and we’re especially grateful that some customers have chosen to allow us to feature their stems online. The first few are below – thanks to Dan Watts for the source material for these. We’ll be putting more up over the coming weeks, but it’s going to be some time before we’ll be able to really illustrate the scope of what’s possible. We’ve started with our headline and classic gear, but there are boxes and shelves of strange and unique devices that we’ve yet to delve into…

UPDATE: We now have limited space available each month, so whether you just want a short loop running through one of our Grampian reverbs, or need some sounds processing for remix inspiration, or if you would like to enquire about full mix stem treatments, please register your interest here or click below:

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Tony Miln is the co-founder (& Head Gear Head) of Soundgas. See/hear him in action on Instagram.

Regeneration: Synths Beyond Sustainability

Regeneration: Synths Beyond Sustainability

The recent climate change coverage in the media is a wake up call that we ignore at our peril (looking at you, President Trump). I’ve written about the importance of us educating and training new technicians to ensure the future of the classic instruments and gear that we all use and cherish, but is there also an environmental argument for doing so?

Most modern synths, effects and amps are surely more energy efficient than their predecessors, but what is the cost of continuing to deplete precious resources by churning out an endless stream of ever-cheaper new products? On the surface, it’s great being able to purchase a new hardware synth for less than you’d have paid for a software version ten years ago. However, these cheap electronics are manufactured using SMT (surface mount technology) components which, due to the tiny scale of their circuits, are beyond the capabilities of most repair technicians (if you can find one) once they fail. The economies of keeping costs down often dictates that manufacturer support will evaporate once the warranty expires. If even a minor component fails on a modern synth it can be considered to be beyond economic repair. Can you imagine dropping your vintage Minimoog in the trash because an oscillator stops working? Less of a stretch to picture the same happening with Behringer Model Ds in five, ten or twenty years’ time…

Electronic Waste

Given the state of our planet, yesterday’s (and sadly also today’s) cheap electronics mantra of ‘replace not repair’ is anachronistic and completely out of step with how we should regard newly-manufactured products. It’s the same across many areas of consumer society: rather than buying one well-made pair of shoes that last, and can be repaired, we are offered a stream of ‘designer’ options that either fall to pieces, or fall out of fashion, only a matter of months later. Certainly a quick look through the corporate websites of a few of the large manufacturers of modern music equipment reveals that   terms such as Product Life CycleCarbon Footprint and Embodied Carbon are noticeable by their absence. If anyone knows of meaningful policies around these issues among such companies do let us know in the comments below.

Korg 700S

Many people understand that we have to move towards more sustainable practices to improve the situation, but slowing climate change may not be enough. There are those who suggest that we need to reverse the process, and talk of us moving towards a more regenerative society: not just carbon-neutral, but carbon negative.

I like to think that our efforts to regenerate old equipment that might otherwise be consigned to the scrapheap is part of this movement towards a sense of responsibility for our resources. Taking something that has already been manufactured and, with care and expertise, bringing it back to useful operation (sometimes improving on the original design) so that it will continue to serve a useful function well into the future, is just one way we can slow the squandering of the earth’s resources. And our techs, who specialise in squirrelling away old parts and seem allergic to ever throwing anything out, are very pleased that their natural hoarding instinct has now been re-branded as “diverting waste from landfill”.

Binson switches

Binson Echorec Baby

Another area we are keen to improve on is offsetting the environmental cost of packing and shipping gear around the planet. We already recycle as much packaging as possible, and are working with B1G1 planting trees in Borneo, as well as supporting clean water initiatives and other causes that make a difference to the environment. We are hoping to add an option at checkout on our new website that will encourage customers to further offset the carbon footprint of their purchases as well as investigating more environmentally-friendly packaging options. Several employees have expressed interest in the Cycle To Work Scheme, which we are instigating (no small commitment in chilly, hilly Derbyshire) and we use energy from renewable sources to power our office, workshops and studio. The new Soundgas Studio Service, which allows customers to access our processing gear remotely, could even reduce the amount of travel required when recording/mixing.

Frogg Compu Sound

Soundgas is not just about doing the right thing for our customers and employees, it is also a commitment to be a force for good in our community and the wider world, and to effect positive change via our actions. I urge anyone who is not already familiar with the UN Global Goals for sustainable development to check their site here: https://www.globalgoals.org/ and to do whatever you can, no matter how small, to help move the planet towards a better future. And to feel good about yourself for your desire to recycle and regenerate old recording equipment and instruments rather than buying yet another disposable piece of plastic…

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Tony Miln is the co-founder (& Head Gear Head) of Soundgas. See/hear him in action on Instagram.

New Premier Guitar Article: Modulation Nation

NEW ARTICLE FOR PREMIER GUITAR MAGAZINE:

Modulation Nation: Explore the History & Mystery of Chorus, Phasing & Flanging Effects

Tony’s latest article for America’s finest guitar magazine, Premier Guitar, is out now.

 

Modulation Nation: Chorus, Phasing, and Flanging

Attempting to condense the history, use, and notable examples of chorus, flanger and phaser effects, into a single magazine article is far from easy for someone who could fill a book writing solely about phaser pedals. However, this turned out to be a labour of love – in the process of researching the article, I remembered and learned a great deal, and put a few misremembered ‘facts’ to bed.

My research led me to many great performance examples, some of which are below: it ended up taking me a very long time to complete, but was an absolute pleasure. I’d still love to get the actual lowdown on what was used as the piano treatment on the title track to Roxy Music’s ‘For Your Pleasure’ (was it an Eventide Instant Phaser or Eno’s VCS3?), or Jimmy Page on John Paul Jones’ electric piano on Led Zeppelin’s ‘No Quarter’ (VCS3, or phaser and VCS3?). The YouTube clip below shows him using the venerable Maestro PS-1A during a live performance.

Roxy Music – For Your Pleasure: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Aa75RZnfCL0

Led Zeppelin – No Quarter (live 1975): https://youtu.be/0oYw2P90CsU?t=1m16s

I was able to indulge my affection for the Electro Harmonix Small Stone, used on so many classic recordings from Jean Michel Jarre to Radiohead (the live version of ‘Paranoid Android’ below is fabulous).

Jean Michel Jarre: Oxygene https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nz1cEO01LLc

Radiohead Paranoid Android https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K50UVfgwVuA

The Schulte Compact Phasing A is my favourite phaser pedal, and features on many treasured recordings – the following clips show its versatility from rock to synth classics…

Ritchie Blackmore Solo – Catch the Rainbow Live Germany 1976: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8fVuoHAmstc

Tangerine Dream – Stratosfear: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sTcA21yuH1g

Kraftwerk – Autobahn: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x-G28iyPtz0

You couldn’t write about the history of modulation without discussing the iconic Boss CE-1: the pedal that launched Boss and which, together with the Roland Jazz Chorus amp, was responsible for a whole new guitar sound in the late ’70s/early ’80s.

The Cure – A Forest (Amazing chorus-heavy TV performance from 1979): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-CtgAgTqx0w

The Police – Walking On The Moon: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zPwMdZOlPo8

Red Hot Chili Peppers – Under The Bridge: https://youtu.be/GLvohMXgcBo?t=3m59s

Then there’s the Mu-tron Bi-Phase: a firm Soundgas favourite and studio staple from dub to rock…

The Smashing Pumpkins – Rocket: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Th-AqMvvBzE

Lee “Scratch” Perry – Wall Street Version: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5WsfZhKnGVk

Eventide were the first company to produce a dedicated rack phaser, used on many of my personal favourite recordings, including by Jimmy Page while producing Physical Graffiti; both for his guitar (In My Time Of Dying) and for John Bonham’s kit (Kashmir). They later produced the Instant Flanger, used by Tony Visconti for the stunning and distinctive piano sound on David Bowie’s Ashes To Ashes.

Led Zeppelin – In My Time Of Dying: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=scpqae3P7Dg

Led Zeppelin – Kashmir: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZDwotNLyz10

David Bowie – Ashes To Ashes: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CMThz7eQ6K0

A great deal more has been left out due to space considerations, so expect a few blog posts on examples that received only brief mentions (including our super-rare pair of ex-Pink Floyd/Britannia Row Gelf Phasers). As ever, I welcome comments, amendments and anecdotes – please use the comments section below or feel free to email me via antony@soundgas.com.

Below is a taster of the first part of the article (link to the full article is below):

Let’s take a dive into the swirling, shimmering waters of modulation and investigate the evolution of chorus, flanging, and phasing. It’s no exaggeration to suggest that nearly every electric-guitar-based album of the past 40 years—and every hearty pedalboard—features one or more of these classic effects. Their development is integral to the soundtrack of our lives. In charting their history, I’ll cover a mix of classic pedals, vintage studio units, and elusive rarities, giving examples of their use in recorded music.

Modulation Nation: Chorus, Phasing, and Flanging

I’ve had a lifelong fascination with vintage and unusual recording gear and effects, and at Soundgas we specialize in supplying them. So effects are definitely my bag and I could fill this magazine just writing about vintage phaser pedals. But such passions tend to be personal, so inevitably there will be omissions in this article that, for some readers, are glaring, and for that I apologize.

As a certified delay freak, it’s perhaps odd that my favorite of the three modulation effects, phasing, involves no delay at all. And my favorite chorus pedal happens to be a flanger. And my favorite flanger is the Tape Phase Simulator. Confused? Read on…

Modulation Nation: Chorus, Phasing, and Flanging

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Tony Miln is the co-founder (& Head Gear Head) of Soundgas. See/hear him in action on Instagram.

Synthfest 2018 Report – Soundgas Bring The Noise

Synthfest 2018 Report – Soundgas Bring The Noise

This weekend we returned to Sheffield for Synthfest UK 2018 organised by Sound On Sound Magazine. While we’d agreed to bring a more sensible amount of gear than last year, there was still more than a Volvo estate full – even before we realised we’d missed out the Roland SH-5… More information below, but we managed to get out from behind the stand and film some highlights for our new IGTV channel – click on the stills to view (part three featuring the Will Gregory Moog Ensemble’s performance of John Carpenter’s Escape From New York Theme is further down):

   Soundgas Synthfest 2018 Report - Part Two - Moog Modular

Suffice to say, we brought an eclectic selection of synths, effects and oddball gear, as well as a few stunning Roland Space Echoes and of course a Binson Echorec. Gid did a sterling job organising the interactive display/analogue noise-factory, which certainly had the necessary ‘wtf-is-that?!’ quotient. True to form, we managed to mistakenly bring a broken/unserviced polysynth, but nobody missed the Juno 60 with such heavyweight desirables as the ’73 Minimoog and SH-5 available for demoing. Our star turn was almost certainly the Sankei Stereo Entertainer which certainly turned a lot of heads; it was possibly the least well-known ‘synth’ on display anywhere at the show, and attracted a huge amount of interest (though remains definitely ‘not for sale’). Running the Sankei’s FM radio through the achingly-new Meris Enzo synth pedal and various effects provided us with a constantly evolving “Orb-esque” soundtrack that kept us amused (dubbing out radio 4’s “News Quiz” was a highlight…).

Adrian Flanagan and Dean Honer Moonlandingz Korg 700S Synthfest Sheffield Soundgas

After set up, we nipped to see TVAM and International Teachers Of Pop (Dean and Adrian from Moonlandingz and Eccentronic Research Council‘s new project) play a gig round the corner from the Octagon – most enjoyable it was too. TVAM’s set of sumptuous distortion-heavy backing tracks (with old school video/TV accompaniment) overlaid with heavily-effected guitar and treated vocals was a treat – very much Soundgas’ type of sound. ITOP were superb – infectious dancefloor-friendly synth grooves (or ‘nerd disco’ as they style it) with driving live drums that nodded to Sheffield’s unparalleled heritage of iconic synthpop acts. Singer Leonore Wheatley had brought a pal along, and the two singers nailed the set – including a cover of Floyd’s Another Brick In The Wall (very nerd disco) – while throwing down moves in fine style bookended by the ‘two blokes with synths’. Dean worked his MS-20 hard, and in between songs Adrian dispensed traditional Yorkshire bonhomie and encouragement to the enthusiastic revellers; a fine time was had by all.

Soundgas Synthfest 2018 Live Moog Ensemble

The next day, we nursed our hangovers and girded up loins and various other body parts for the eight hour delights of a room filled with synths, drum machines and eager tweakers. I managed a quick tour of the main room, stopping off to film a few quick interviews for our first Instagram TV episode. A whirlwind tour of the room took me to meet our friends Push and Mark from the fabulous Electronic Sound Magazine; Tom Szakaly and his fine Moog Modular set up; Tom at KMR who was rocking the Elektron Octatrack and Moon Modular – plus that Buchla Music Easel that always has my GAS levels ready to pop; and analogue legend Ian Boddy who was there with Nigel Mullaney promoting the DiN record label. We were introducing people to the new Soundgas Studio Services, and invited a few Sheffield folk to come pay us a visit.

Graham Massey 808 State James Walker Synthfest 2018 Soundgas Synth

The following seven hours passed in a flash meeting friends old and new: the best thing about Synthfest is the friendly enthusiasm of the attendees – it’s not about selling stuff for us, it’s a chance to meet like-minded people and chat about music and gear. Graham Massey of 808 State came by to say and I managed to have a few words with Martyn Ware of Heaven 17. Martin was very taken with our Hawk Echo and, spying the Korg 700S, spoke fondly of using his 700 to make the first two Human League records – he mentioned he’ll be taking his out live for the first time this year.

Will & Lucy Board with Tony Miln from Soundgas at Synthfest UK Sheffield

It’s always a pleasure to meet our customers; Matt and Lucy Board came by to say hi – they married this year and had asked family and friends to club together so they could buy a Space Echo as a wedding present! It’s now installed in their Devon studio and they’re going to come and pay us a visit in our studio soon. Mark Fordyce (of 80s act The Mood) saw the Syncussion clone and chatted about playing one live on the Razzmatazz TV show. Will Gregory of Goldfrapp stopped for a brief chat towards the end of the day, en route to his Moog Ensemble gig.

Will Gregorys Moog Ensemble Synthfest 2018 Sheffield Soundgas Synth

Once the show ended, we packed down and loaded out in record time, eager to not miss the Will Gregory Moog Ensemble gig – we made it having sadly missed the opening piece of Handel. If you’ve not caught them live, it’s a must-see – nine people playing analogue synths – a heady mixture of classical pieces (revisiting Walter/Wendy Carlos early Moog work), original compositions (inspired by large concrete blocks and Tim Henman) and of course their show-stopping rendition of John Carpenter’s theme to Escape From New York.

Our final stop was the aftershow at Bungalows And Bears for a few well-earned drinks to a superb soundtrack of electronic and Italo disco classics courtesy of DJs Ralph Razor and Sasquatch. All in all it was another supremely enjoyable show and our thanks go out to the Sound On Sound team and volunteers for making it such a great event.

Want more Synthfest? Read Sound On Sound’s round up of the show, complete with excellent video.

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Tony Miln is the co-founder (& Head Gear Head) of Soundgas. See/hear him in action on Instagram.

EMS Synthi HiFli

EMS Synthi HiFli Family

The EMS Synthi HiFli by Tony Miln

If you’re a guitar pedal nerd, then the EMS Synthi HiFli is the pinnacle of desirability: it is the stuff of legend; a rare and much-mythologised beast that is seldom-sighted – sporting many sliders with alluring names. In his book, ‘Analog Man’s Guide To Vintage Effects’, Tom Hughes officially anointed the HiFli king of kings – rarest of the rare – big chief amongst the hen’s teeth.

In short, the EMS Synthi HiFli is the ultimate vintage guitar ‘pedal’; good examples are very few and far between. I set out many years ago now to try and find one – the combination of at last being able to play something bearing the hallowed name of EMS (a Synthi or VCS3 both being unaffordable) and its reputation as the ultimate guitar synth spurring me on. I eventually found one at a price that now seems very reasonable, but at the time was a big stretch, and I entered a hallowed land of squelchy sonic nirvana.

Hi Flying Bird

I’ve been very fortunate to have owned five of them over the years, and with some overlap between different variations. For a while, I had both a rare early prototype example and one of the last Mk2 units (which I own to this day – sadly the prototype represented too much investment to keep for long). They have all sounded quite different and each one has its own unique charm and character (was how I justified keeping two for a while). Anyone who is at all familiar with ageing hand-built electronics will understand why: the individual components in these complex, discrete, circuits, all of which started out with slightly-varied values over the course of production, have aged differently over more than 40 years. I could have justified keeping all four on the basis that each had unique qualities I enjoyed (though I doubt this would have flown well at home). The realities of building a vintage gear business means significant injections of cash are regularly-required so, as Soundgas grew, various Synthi HiFlis came and went, though I managed to always hang onto at least one (my current unit is one of the last ones produced by EMS).

The HiFli is, without any shadow of doubt, the ultimate guitar synth pedal. It has the feature set, sound, looks, rarity value, and sheer star-quality combined with unparalleled physical presence.

Exalted Company

Produced by Electronic Music Studios (London) Ltd from 1972 onward, the HiFli was designed in 1971 by the great David Cockerell (also responsible for such legendary synths as the EMS VCS3, Synthi AKS and Synthi 100). In 1974, following his tenure at EMS, he moved to Electro Harmonix, where he went on to design many classic pedals, including the Small Stone, Electric Mistress, 16 Second Digital Delay, and the Microsynth. I am a big fan of his early Electro Harmonix pedals – the Small Stone and 18v Electric Mistress, while a little noisy, both have something of the liquid magic of the HiFli’s circuits within.

David Gilmour Synthi HiFli

The Dark Side

David Gilmour of Pink Floyd is the most renowned early-adopter of the HiFli, purchasing a ‘very, very expensive’ early prototype and using it on stage in 1972/3 and also during recording Dark Side Of The Moon at Abbey Road Studios (though long time Floyd/Gilmour tech, Phil Taylor, maintains that it didn’t feature greatly on the final recordings). A HiFli can be seen in the film of Pink Floyd Live At Pompeii. David still owns two units to this day, and the prototype unit was on display at the stunning V&A exhibition ‘Pink Floyd – Their Mortal Remains’ last year. Only around 350 HiFlis were made – they weren’t the most robust of devices so how many remain to this day is hard to say. Other notable users include Steve Hackett of Genesis and Todd Rundgren.

David Gilmour's Synthi HiFli

Above: David Glimour’s Synthi HiFli in the V&A Pink Floyd Exhibition

Prototype, Toilet Seat, Orange Box.

Martin Holbrook’s design for the iconic Hifli saw the circuit boards and control panel housed inside a futuristic and curvaceous space age cream fibreglass console, which became known as the ‘toilet seat’. The first ten prototypes featured foot pedals housed at the base of the stand which, while very pleasing from an aesthetic point of view, was much less successful ergonomically: access to the integral twin foot pedals underneath a sizeable control section is restricted and not at all conducive to comfortable use while holding or playing a guitar.

EMS Synthi HiFli prototype

The main production design was changed to a much more practical stand and separate foot pedals. The final ten or so units produced after EMS ran out of cream fibreglass cases were housed in garish orange/red-painted wooden boxes: from the space age sixties dream to late seventies kitchen worktop palette.

Vive La Différence

I’ve had examples from each era; while the early prototype was missing some later refinements and improvements to the design, and some mid-period units don’t have the ‘Growl’ modification, all examples I’ve had the pleasure of using have been utterly captivating. The HiFli is unparalleled as an all-analogue guitar device: I know of no other contemporary effect unit that is anything like as sonically-versatile or compellingly-expressive. It is only comparatively recently that a single modern guitar effect has been able to offer a similarly broad range of sonic possibilities as the HiFli. That EMS achieved this in the early seventies with discrete analogue technology is a testament to David Cockerell’s great talent as a designer.

EMS Synthi HiFli - Early/mid period

Love Or Confusion?

Find a good HiFli and you have a device that oozes inspiration and whose quirks and foibles are Manna to the sonically-experimental guitarist, but be prepared to take some time getting acquainted: you might find the most amazing effect as soon as you plug in, or you may spend half an hour scratching your head and sounding like a plastic wasp in a glass tube. Should you find that amazing sound, be certain to hit record while it’s there as it can prove nigh on impossible to precisely repeat settings. There are so many variable parameters on those sliders and the slightest adjustment of each can have a significant effect on the sound. Unsurprisingly, the Hifli has all the attendant flaws, foibles and idiosyncrasies that you expect to find in an analogue synth dating from the early ‘70s. It is one of those rare magical devices that surprises and delights one moment, only to obfuscate and exasperate the next, but the sounds you can create are truly inspiring.

Set The Controls…

This complex and nuanced unit is so far from a set and forget preset device and use requires careful consideration – not unlike a modular synth. Naturally, you can plug in and move sliders and switches until you happen upon a sound you like, but you’re likely to miss some of the deeper joys of the device (for instance on certain settings, it’s The Mother Of All Phasers).

Synthi HiFli - Late version

Controls are divided into two main sections by the Bypass Mixer (which controls the Wet/Dry mix). On the left are the Top Boost, Octave Shift and Sustain Fuzz and on the right are the various controls for the stunning and multi-featured Phase Filter section. This is where you select and shape the various phaser, vibrato and filter settings: the settings name Vibrato, Phasing 1, Phasing 2, Waa, Waw, and Meow, provide a tantalising glimpse of what’s possible. Running along the bottom are the switches to control the left and right pedals – what they control, and their polarity. Being able to select positive or negative voltage for the various sliders (or leave them off) for each pedal, you have vast array of control options at your disposal. On the top left is the Solo/Strum switch which determines the attack/decay time sensitivity – select appropriately whether you are playing single notes or strumming multiple strings/chords – or choose to use the ‘wrong’ setting and see how it sounds. Later units feature the Growl function which uses a sub-harmonic to modulate the phase filter yielding even wilder sounds.

Welcome To The Machine

There’s nothing else that I’ve found that offers the depth, scale, or sheer craziness of the Synthi Hifli – the Ludwig Phase II Synthesizer is often cited as its closest rival, but it really isn’t in the same league. One minute you’re making Floyd-esque seagull noises in the amphitheatre at Pompeii, the next you’re like an axe-slinging Kraftwerk mannequin. And yet it also excels at gentle and subtle phasing and vibrato. The HiFli is a design of staggering quality and ambition, offering sonic possibilities that stretch far beyond any other guitar device of the seventies.

EMS Synthi HiFli controls

Like the EMS Synthi AKS (see my previous blog post, ‘Machines With Soul’), the Hifli is a true instrument, that will reflect the style and feel of the player, and that will add something of itself to the music played. I’ve used different HiFlis to create all kinds of wild electronic noises with guitar and I don’t feel I’ve even come close to exhausting the sonic possibilities this wondrous device has to offer.

Sound Freaky?

A HiFli is not for everyone – most of us can only dream of a solitary unit costing more than most guitarists’ entire rigs, and even if you can afford one, finding them is far from easy. Being so large, delicate, and expensive, and now very often requiring specialist technical attention to bring back up to spec, they are not for the fainthearted. Nor indeed would it be to everyone’s taste; this isn’t something you buy to sound like many (or any?) famous guitarists – this is something you want because you aren’t trying to sound like other guitarists. However, if experimental and electronic sounds float your boat; if you’d choose Kraftwerk over Zeppelin or Fripp over Clapton; if an effect also known as ‘The Sound Freak’ is more enticing than another overdrive pedal; the Synthi HiFli might just make you complete.

If you’re a HiFli user, please get in touch – either via the comments section here, or direct – we’d love to hear of your experiences and tales using yours. And if you have an unused or unloved cream toilet-seat shaped device lurking in a loft or cupboard somewhere, in any condition that you’d like to sell, then please contact me at tony@soundgas.com – we’d be happy to resurrect it and find it a loving and appreciative new home.

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Tony Miln is the co-founder (& Head Gear Head) of Soundgas. See/hear him in action on Instagram.