Music From Outer Space: Q and A with D.I.Y. Synth Guru Ray Wilson
On his site www.musicfromouterspace.com, Ray Wilson provides schematics and other “how to” info for the “do it yourself” creation of synthesizers. With designs for everything from basic VCO oscillator modules to a variety of synths, Wilson is eager to share his love of electronic music with others. In January, I had the privilege of asking him a few questions.
Synthbeat: As amazing as digital synths have become, people still love the vintage analog sound and design. What’s that all about?
Ray Wilson: These days many digital synths and especially software based models (like the Arturia Moog Modular 2.0) come so close to being audibly indiscernible from an actual analog synthesizer that it’s pretty darn incredible. But… having an “actual” synth case full of “real” knobs and “real” patch-cords that you can feel and turn and experience in the “real” world is something that these units and programs just can’t give the true analog synth connoisseur. I believe synth-diy people crave the feel of actually pressing a key, turning a knob, or switching a switch to change the sound. It’s like you’re connected to the synthesizer. And as far as the really slowly changing timbres and modulations of the Space Music genre I don’t think the digitals have the quantization levels necessary to avoid some remnant of the “zipper” effect. That’s when you hear discreet changes in levels of amplitude or cut-off frequency that you don’t get with analog synths no matter how long the attack or decay or how slowly a modulating signal is oscillating.
Synthbeat: How active and widespread is the DIY synth scene?
Ray Wilson: It’s HUGE. I hear from people all over the globe that are into making their own synthesizers. One of these days I plan to get a huge world map and put push pins on all of the countries I’ve heard from. I’m talking Russia, China, Japan, Germany, Sweden, The Netherlands, Poland, Spain, and of course a ton of people in the USA. People send me photos of their creations and each one is different and interesting and represents a person taking the time to build their own instrument which I think is a totally cool way to spend some of the time we get to spend on the planet. Having built the actual device containing the “real” knob you are turning to get the cool sound only adds to the uniqueness and enjoyment of the analog synth experience.
Synthbeat: Let me see if I understand this: using the info at your site, people can find the schematics, and buy a circuit board (or make their own), then head on down to their local electronics retailer and get the parts for another $70 to $100. After designing a cabinet, and using one of your suggested panel designs, or one of their own, they’ve got themselves a synth (though they’ll need to buy a controller, say a control voltage keyboard.) Is this accurate?
Ray Wilson: That’s pretty much the case. The Sound Lab Mini-Synth is a very popular project for people who are getting back into synth-diy. I emphasize that it is for playing with sound and that the oscillators in the unit only track over a couple of octaves after making some modifications to the circuit but it’s still a lot of fun and very popular. My site has a couple of keyboard voltage controller projects that people can build or they can buy a MIDI to CV controller (just Google it to find them) and use that with their MIDI keyboard to control analog gear (including the Sound Lab Mini-Synth). My son recently completed a Sound Lab Mini-Synth and has been having a blast with it ever since. It’s gratifying to know that people are enjoying the experience of building something themselves and then having fun being creative with it. I remember when I got something to make a sound for the first time, it was exhilarating. As I progressed and could make sounds more like a Moog or an ARP synth I was hooked. Of course the modular VCO PC board I sell tracks over more than 5 octaves when a good matched transistor pair is used with it (the SSM2210 for example)
Synthbeat: I don’t see any copyright info on the schematics. Making this info available must be a labor of love for you, more than anything else. Please explain : )
Ray Wilson: It is definitely a lot of work and much of it is a labor of love. But I include the notice “All Content Copyright Ray Wilson and MFOS 2007/2008” on the bottom of all of my web pages and I make efforts to put a copyright notice in all of my schematics and information. The group of people interested in building synth-diy projects is huge but the group of people actually creating and publishing synth-diy information is rather small and close knit. We watch out for one another’s intellectual property rights and are quick to report unfair use to one another and thus it’s never been a problem. People often email me with requests to build modules from my designs and I enter into informal agreements with them that as long as they buy the boards from me, mention MFOS and add a link to my site I’m cool with it. I’ve been publishing information of this nature for almost 10 years now. I’ve started to sell a fair number of boards and it gives me impetus to create new designs and prototypes. I plan to continue doing this as long as I can and hope to continue after I retire from software engineering.
Synthbeat: What kind of programs do you use to print front panels, and where can people get them?
Ray Wilson: I wrote the program I dubbed “Electronic Publisher” in C++ using Microsoft Visual Studio. It started out as a project to reinforce my C++ programming skill since I started doing Java for work and had taken too long to learn C++ to abandon it. The program grew into a schematic capture, PC board layout, layout verification, design checker, front panel layout, wiring diagram maker – program thingy that I use all the time. So it’s not commercially available.
Synthbeat: What was the first synth schematic you designed?
Ray Wilson: I’m pretty sure it was the VCO found on this web page:http://www.musicfromouterspace.com/analogsynth/vco.html As you can see those layouts and PC boards were made using Windows Paint. Using it for PC layout was more like a Window’s Pain.
Synthbeat: Your DIY modular has a wonderful tone. How long did it take you to create it, and what are some of its features? The “Night on Primus File” features a sound resembling a plucked string instrument. It’s very nice!
Ray Wilson: Thanks a lot. I really enjoy coming up with compositions like that. My modular has taken literally years to make (about three in all). I’m like the synth-maker whose modules have no shoes (nice front panels and neat wiring in this case). I’m always coming up with something new and publishing it but I have a stopping point in mind for new designs and then I plan to focus on making CDs and really getting into the creative side of things. “Night on Primus” is the result of setting up the synth with enough randomness to sit and play itself after which I pretty much sit back and listen.
Synthbeat: The sub commander guitar synth is impressive, and you offer 16 step sequencers, and basically any component of a traditional analogue synth. What else is around the corner?
Ray Wilson: I actually have some things in the pipes that Sound Lab Mini-Synth owners are going to like. I’m going to focus on some small simple things for a while so people who are just getting started have some cool projects to cut their teeth on. I encourage people to keep visiting http://www.musicfromouterspace.com to see the latest projects.
Synthbeat: I see that on the internet archives, your first page for musicfromouterspace went up on Jan. 2004. How were you making the schematics available before that?
Ray Wilson: I had a site I called “RayLand” and that is actually where I started to share schematics, Java applets, code snippets and so forth. Eventually I focused the site more no synths and registered the domain “musicfromouterspace”. I truly believe that the literal space program was the impetus for many of the inventions that made semiconductor devices widely available and affordable enough for people to get into it. That’s the real story behind the site’s name “Music From Outer Space”. The fact that it also reflects one of my favorite genres, Space Music, is serendipitous.
Synthbeat: What is your actual occupation and training?
Ray Wilson: I’ve been a software engineer for years and my formal training is in that vein. My only formal electronics training came when I worked in, believe it or not, a US Steel mill in McKees Rocks, PA called Wheel & Axle where we manufactured… drum roll… train wheels and axles. I became an electronic repairman apprentice and they sent us to school at the Homestead, PA steel works which was much like Mordor… only with training programs of various sorts. I had some great teachers who actually taught us Ohm’s law, Kirchhoff’s law, digital theory, tubes, transistors — the works. It was actually a really great program. I finished the program and became a journeyman electronic repairman just in time for the mill to close. I carried on my studies and experiments and worked in various electrical and electronic capacities (including at an implantable defibrillator company and a couple of pacemaker companies). Eventually I drifted more toward algorithm design and programming where I’ve made my bread and butter ever since.
Synthbeat: I’ve heard mp3 files on your site from Italy, the UK, and the USA. What other countries have you shipped to?
Ray Wilson: As mentioned above: Russia, China, Japan, Germany, Sweden, The Netherlands, Poland, Spain, the UK, the USA, Ireland, Switzerland, Canada, France, Norway, Australia, Italy, Belgium… and on and on.
Synthbeat: Say I’m a budding computer musician, wanting to incorporate a DIY analog synth into my recording workflow, or play live – how practicable would these be? How difficult is it to reverse modify vintage analog technology so it can be integrated via USB or MIDI?
Ray Wilson: If you are a computer musician I suggest that you avail yourself of one of the many sampling synths out there (hardware or software). Then all you need to do is sample one note of whatever electronic sound maker you build and then the sampler will give you a full keyboard of that sound. You could then use the sounds live and have the satisfaction of knowing that you made the generator responsible for the sampled sounds. There are also folks who incorporate things as simple as the WSG in live concert. Generally I would assume these are free form electronic type bands.
Synthbeat: Similarly, how widely available are control voltage keyboards that I could use to control a DIY synth?
Ray Wilson: A very cool company that supplies prebuilt modules is synthesizer.com. They have a keyboard controller for sale: http://www.synthesizers.com/. You can salvage a keyboard from an old organ and as long as it has keys with switches that close to a common bus you can use one of my single buss keyboard PC boards and build one. Additionally and maybe most practically you can get a MIDI to CV converter module and then use any keyboard that outputs MIDI to control analog gear.