Handmade Electronic Music Workshop with Nic Collins – Another Personal Report

The workshop was designed with day one as a class for beginners and the following two days for advanced, or at least more familiar, students of electronics. The first thing that I noticed when the class started was that there were exactly as many women as there were men in the class. I found this encouraging, as did some of the women (I would come to find out over beers after the class).

But what was most impressive was the awesome collection of speakers, radios, toys and tools that were sprawled out on each table. If this were a table at a flea market it would be a dream for any circuit hacking devotee.

To get things started Nic introduced the class as ‘a workshop in listening’ and confidently declared that ‘changing the recording chain changes the way we hear the world.’ That during the next 3 days we would interact with electronics in a way akin to playing a harmonica, with our hands and our spit! And that we would learn the foundational skills needed to create our own exotic ‘harem of experimental music electronics.’  Fantastic! Nic uses anecdote and analogy in a ratio of roughly one in three topics that he presents. I like this!

‘Inside every radio is the essence of a synth, an amp, an oscillator, a ring modulator and the largest sample library in the world.’ Out came Nic’s beautiful Oliveros cigar box radio. After a brief demonstration performance we were green lighted to open the radios we had brought. And there were some beauties…yes there were. But the real beauty came out once we had those circuit boards exposed and our spit-covered fingers all over them. My POSONIC with real TV Sound was getting some awesome tones, though my favorite sounding one was a not so vintage LUMATRON CDP-194. Wow!

Throughout day one we were introduced to oscillators and played our speakers. We made contact and coil microphones. Perhaps the most fun was circuit bending our battery-powered toys. (note: Nic doesn’t really agree with the term “circuit bending” – he believes that implies we are physically bending our circuits in half or something and that would be dumb – we might break them. lol). Here we focused on finding the clock and changing the speed of the sounds. It was presented that slowing things down is more musical and interesting than speeding them up, but I got a great sound on my toy keychain car alarm by speeding it up.

Day two and out came the breadboards! It was time to make circuits. First we made a simple square wave oscillator. And honestly, I could have ended it there and played with that for the entire day! But Nic had more in store for us and I was possibly the most beginner student in the class so we had to move onwards. We got into some oscillator modulation, volume dropping, volume control, swept low pass filtering and then on to optical sound control. By this time I was bit overwhelmed as things were moving so fast. I had come as far as modulating my square wave oscillator with two photoresistors and my corroded metal playable button (two nice round pieces with electro-static foam between them).

The optical sound control stuff was very interesting with the potentials for implementation swirling in my head. I really enjoyed the blinking LED driving photoresistor gate that Nic set up and demonstrated for us with some mellow Bollywood tunes from his iTunes.

Beer again on Saturday night after class and then 5 of us bounced on to a wonderful and inexpensive Chinese meal up the street.

Sunday morning (day three) it was raining and the mood was more somber. Judging from the looks on some faces and more obviously the overheard comments like “Can you turn that down?” and “Can you NOT aim your speaker directly at my face?”  I’d venture to guess that people were sonically frying out a little.

We started off with mixers and matrix mixers. Nic thought he had brought enough potentiometers for everyone to solder together a 3-channel mixer. But a couple of people didn’t get their parts. I did see one person over at the table opposite making a matrix mixer. Just as I’m writing this I realize the implication and hope that he had brought his own pots. Hmmnn…

Next it was time to commit our circuits to a real board and get down to some soldering. We had just started when I realized it was 1:30 and we hadn’t officially broke for lunch the way we had the previous days. Everyone was head down with their projects but I got up to leave for lunch. Another hungry person, Ben, joined me and it was off to find an open restaurant on a Sunday in Amsterdam. Not a simple task.

When we got back it seemed like no one had even left. Did they eat? I have no idea.

I noticed that the diagram for a distortion circuit was up on the white board and someone had a sweet distortion circuit humming. Oooops! I guess I missed that?

Now in the final stretch, people we busy soldering their circuits. Now much more random moments of sound erupted with longer silences between as everyone was checking their work.

It was during this time that Nic requested 6 volunteers to perform in his dead circuit orchestra for the book release party on Tuesday night. A fine 6-player instrument he built inside a Bolivar cigar box (see pics). Lucky for me that I live in Amsterdam and could commit to coming so I’m now player number 3! I’m looking forward to that.

bolivar_top bolivar_inside

As for my circuit… my soldering skills are not up to par for circuit boards and after a couple of botched tries and it being half an hour until the class was over anyway, I called it quits and decided to re-make this at home – where I can take a week to do it!

I’m honored to have had my introduction to hardware hacking and handmade electronic music be presented by such a luminary as Nic Collins and hosted at STEIM (the Vatican of Hacking according to Nic). It’s an experience I’ll never forget.

The Routledge home page for the book, information on purchasing, and a link to a “look inside” function that basically lets you read the whole book on-line. This goes directly to the “look inside” page.

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