Small Streams

Vorsprung durch Technik
November 17, 2013, 1:20 am
Filed under: music, technology | Tags: , ,


Yesterday I went to Rough Trade East over in Brick Lane to take a workshop on the DIY synth presented by Technology Will Save Us.

The navigation and fretting about the trip to east London took up nearly an hour. I used my “how to deal with worrying algorithm” a few times on the way.

By the time I got out of the tube station, I had lost my place on GoogleMaps (after two months I still don’t have phone service). But I remembered the general direction and when I saw the white church and spire at Old Spitalfields I knew I was going in the right direction. I also remembered that Rough Trade East was in the Old Truman Brewery building. As far as I could tell, Rough Trade East is a record store and not a BDSM supplier. Just like the British. Malcolm McLaren called his shop “Sex” and it was most famous for the music. There was a coffee shop in the store and some intentionally rough-hewn tables where the workshop was held. If the background music wasn’t Nick Drake, it was Nick Drake-like. After my worries and commuting trials, the predictability of Brick Lane was comforting. Think of Brick Lane as Diagon Alley for hipsters. East London, though, has hipsters who don’t just find the newest, greatest band. In addition to TWSU, it’s the home of Bare Paint and Sugru, not to mention the latest British Invasion, Candy Crush. TWSU makes many different kits: homemade electronic cards, the thirsty plant water gauge, electronic dough, and others. What’s more, they support their products through workshops

Our workshop consisted of a small group, four students, one instructor, and one TWSU observer. So there was plenty of time to talk. Also plenty of time to adapt to the small missteps that are usually part of the electronics making process (at least my process). The great thing about an instructor is that you get that little bit of extra information you need at crucial moments. You also get the encouragement you need when you think you’re a total screw-up.

After plugging in a dozen or so components and wires I had a working version, with all the wires, resistor, and capacitors (3), and speaker connected with the right prongs on the microchip.Synth

We also got some context of the synthesizer we were making. Obviously it was not a Korg or anything with a bunch of effects, just two potentiometers that controlled the length and frequency of a square wave. Now that I’ve got some background — and a thing I can play with — I can explore the whole resistor/capacitor relationship. One of these and an oscilloscope could constitute a couple of electrical engineering classes. I also learned that the chip we were using was a 556 (which has 50 transistors) is a child of the 555 timer chip (which has 25 transistors). In case you think I’m getting a bit esoteric, please know that a billion 555 chips are used each year. There will soon be more of these multi-pronged, carapaced voltage feeders than there are cockroaches.

I still have yet to get a tune out of the darn thing, but I must say I’m quite proud of it.

Me doing a little Charlie Chaplin move with the pots.

Me doing a little Charlie Chaplin move with the pots.

Thanks to Andrew and Tom for their help and info. I shoud have asked them why they picked the name Technology Will Save Us. As a big fan of Wendell Berry and Jerry Mander and as a general observer, TWSU sounds a little tongue in cheek if not tragic. Was listening to the radio last night and heard an Audi ad. I had to look up the tagline, “Vorsprung durch Technik, as the Germans would say.” Seems it means Progress through Technology. Must be something that’s going around here.