Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Interview with Mike Brown of Livewire Electronics.

Photo byKenneth Reeves

Livewire Electronics modules give the overall impression that you have discovered abandoned 50’s alien test equipment.
With this in mind, I had to interview Mike and see what made this mad scientist tick.

Mike tell us a little about yourself.

This is the one I usually dread... (I'm not one for talking about

myself much) but how about this:

Played in a few bands during the '80s & '90s... if anyone

remembers Cafe'Noire, Aura Circuit, or my solo project,

Electronium (probably not... haha)

Studied electronic music at Cal State University San Bernardino

under Dr.Raymond Torre-Santos (now at Hunter College in New

York). At the time they did not have an electronic music

program, so when I showed up for recitals with my reels

of tape music... the jury of music dept. administrators

threw me out... haha...2 years later they had a full blown

electronic music major program. figures.

I had always wanted a modular synth... but being married

with small kids,had no hope of justifying the expense.

Then around 1994, I discovered a book in the local library...

"build your own synthesizer" by Thomas Henry.

I thought "I can do *this*!" so I set about gathering parts

from local surplus stores and schematics from anywhere

I could get them... library books mostly... I was on the

internet, but this was pre-web days I think...

So then I went about starting small fires for the next

six years or so... ;)

Eventually, the circuits began to actually work... and

then I was thoroughly hooked.

A few years later, the idea came about to start

Livewire... mostly from the fact that I absolutely

ABHORRED my corporate day job. I started the business

while still working as a project manager for a bank, and

it took another six months to a year before I built up

the courage to make the leap to full-time self employment...

and I've never regretted the decision.

Now, one thing I must say... the thing I like the most

about this business is the camaraderie of the boutique

synth community... Dieter Doepfer, Wowa Cwejman,

Jered Flickinger, Eric Barbour, Yasi Pererra, Jurgen Michaelis,

Bruce Duncan, Carsten Schippmann and of course, the

one and only Ken MacBeth... these guys were all amazingly

supportive and helpful... and in turn, it has been my great

pleasure to help out guys like Scott Jaeger and Josh Holley

get started with their eurorack lines.

So that about brings us to 2008... Steve has done

a fantastic job in following through with my vision to bring

all Livewire products to factory assembly. We are now

delivering products to dealers in quantities we never

could have managed before. A huge debt of gratitude goes to Steve for

taking Livewire to the next stage.

Can you remember what “that” moment was when you were blown away by electronic music?

Wow... that's a big question. let's see... When I was *really* young, I

remember hearing "Funeral for a Friend/Loves Lies Bleeding" on Elton John's

"Yellow Brick Road" LP... honestly, that was probably my first real

awareness of synthesizers.... (yeah, I know... pretty lame, huh?) after

that... I remember my friend's hippie older brother playing this record for

me through headphones... it was "Autobahn" by kraftwerk. now that REALLY

blew me away... then the late 70s & early 80s came... some records I

specifically remember would be "TVOD" by The Normal, "Metal Beat" by John

Foxx, the "Leave in Silence" 12" by Depeche Mode, that first Heaven 17 LP...

what was it called?, "Rage in Eden" by Ultravox (Conny Plank's work...

amazing), the "Replicas" LP by Gary Numan, "Your Silent Face" & "Temptation"

by New Order... all this stuff really got me into electronic music. it was

like an explosion really... all this great music and most of it made with

synths. then in the 90s I remember the first time I heard "Papua New

Guinea" by FSOL... and then all that big beat stuff... "Block Rocking Beats"

& "The Rockefeller Skank"... and then drum n bass... and IDM... Autechre &

Aphex Twin... man, so much great stuff.

The Dual Cyclotron was the first Livewire?

Yes and no.... the FrequenSteiner was technically the first Livewire module,

but that was just a clone of Nyle Steiner's design... the Dual Cyclotron was

the first module that I designed all myself, from scratch.

You have an amazing collection of old test oscillators. Why?

Hmmm..... why......? a good question. I guess I became obsessed with the

idea of building a big modular synth out of them once I discovered you could

buy them on ebay for $5 and $10... and y'know... they just look so cool.

What's interesting about working with them, is you have to really adopt a

different approach to get any kind of 'music' out of them... because you're

working with machines that really aren't meant to make music... sometimes

they really aren't meant to even make sound! so you have to approach it

with a different way of thinking...

In the end, this really affected my ideas when it came to module design...

particularly with things like the dual cyclotron... which is specifically

inspired by the way I used to patch up certain pieces of test equipment.

Your modules seem old school circa 50’s era electronics but in an alien

dimension. What is it that you love so much about Livewire?

Hmm... another good question.... I guess what it is is that I am designing

modules for myself, generally... I design stuff based on the things that *I*

like... things that *I* want a modular to do... and I suppose it's based on

that 1950s SciFi aesthetic... which is one of my favorites... y'know lab

coats & Tesla coils & great big dials & switches. NASA stuff.

Why do you think there is a growing interest in modular synths?

I think it is because people like to turn knobs... pretty simple. a laptop

touch pad can get pretty boring.

Do you think you will ever run out of ideas?

Nah... too many good ideas... I'll more likely run out of time! ;)

Two of your modules the Dalek and Vulcan make me think you are a Doctor Who and Star Trek fan?

Well growing up in America in the 1960s & 70s I was a big Star Trek

fan... but only of the orig TV series. now my kids & I are huge Doctor Who

fans... we don't miss it!

I see on the back of my AFG quotes from The Matrix, are there any other quotes I may have missed on other boards?

There are quotes on every module... you just have to look harder on some ;)

The Dual Cyclotron has quotes in the form of a riddle... 3 excerpts from the

lyrics of 3 different songs... but all related... so far Daniel Miller is

the only one who has been able to guess the connection (but he cheated... as

he's part of the riddle!)

We have seen some of the Livewire module prototypes. Can we expect new modules released in 2009? 

Yeah, definitely... there will definitely be new livewire modules released
in 2009... of the prototypes you've already seen, the Subdivider & Chaos
Computer will probably be released this year... along with the expander
modules for the AFG. plus, I have a couple of modules that I have not shown
that I plan to release soon..... stay tuned!

Photo Ken MacBeth

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Peter Forrest interview. From A- Z

As most synth heads know, the two books you simply must own are both from Peter Forrest!

The A-Z of Analogue Synthesizers is a synth lovers dream with so much information about all the great and not so great synthesizers specs and history. I caught up with Peter and asked him some questions.

Can you let us know your background.

I started making music with a friend at university in, ahem, the early 70s. He had a Philips Philicorda organ, I had a Bird Duplex organ, and we bought an Akai 4000DS tape machine between us. The Bird was a crazy choice - I chose it over a Vox Jaguar when I was keen to play with some other friends who had a guitar-based band. I still have it - which is even more crazy, especially as I've had to sell most of my favourite synths in the meantime.

Do you remember a key moment when you fell in love with synths?

I was intrigued by a Synthi AKS when I went to teacher training college after university, but didn't follow it up. The Roland SH-7 was the first synth I actually owned.

Was there a sound / recording that did i for you?

I think it was the Moog bass-lines on Van Morrison's St Dominic's Preview LP, and the soundscapes of Tonto's Zero Time, and Zodiac : Cosmic Sounds. But it was Zero Time that really hit the mark.

Your books A-Z of Analogue Synthesizers is a fantastic resource for people into synths. I bought the original A-Z back in 1996. I see it was then reissued and expanded. How well has it sold?

It's sold in small numbers - I just ran out of the second 2000 of the A-M, and must re-write it. It's great, because there's so much stuff that's come out since 1998 - but that means it will be hard work.

Have you sold more of one than the other?

More A-M, just because it came out earlier than the N-Z.

I assume you have owned your fair share of synths. Do you have a favourite?

I hope I never have to sell my Prophet-T8.

Are there any synths you regret selling or have you held on to everything?

I've sold most of the great synths I've ever owned. Just needed to for financial reasons.

I think the Alesis Andromeda A6 was the last polyphonic analog synth. It reminded me of a Jupiter 8 meets a Memorymoog meets a CS80. The only thing that made it not THE BEST SYNTH EVER was that it seemed unfinished.....I have found all synths seem to lack that "have it all". Have you found a have it all synth?

The T8 is the closest, despite its imperfect envelopes. If only the JP-8 or Memorymoog or Andromeda had a keyboard like that....

You also run Veima auctions.How has that been going?

It's been going well for twelve or thirteen years, and seems to be on a bit of a roll at the moment! I get to play with some fantastic or rare or otherwise interesting instruments and effects, and it's satisfying that people are very happy with their sales and purchases.

Can you see an updated version up to 2009?I guess it would be a huge task.

I have to update the A-M, which is luckily the half of the alphabet where most of the new projects sit.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Analog Days - Trevor Pinch interview

Trevor Pinch is the co-author of the amazing book Analog Days.
If you are a fan of synths, or just have a passing interest, this book is a must read. After interviewing so many people for the book I thought it would be great to interview Trevor.

Your book Analog Days is a fantastic read. I am wondering why you subtitled it "The invention and impact of the Moog synthesizer." was this purely to help the non educated latch onto the Moog name to buy the book?

Writing about electronic music synthesizers for a general audience is already a hard sell. Moog is the best-known name, so although the book deals with ARP, EMS and Buchla, it is the “hook” to get people interested. Apart from that the book has more about Moog than any other synths.

How long did it take to create the book?

The research started about 9 years before book came out. The actual writing of the book took about three years. We had a few blank starts when it just didn’t work. At one stage we even had an agent in New York City who promised to make us rich – but he couldn’t sell the book to a publisher, he said “no one is interested in an old machine, couldn’t you put in a bit more sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll”!

Do you have a collection of analog synths? Do you have a favourite synth?

My first synth I built myself in 1972 from circuits I found in the UK hobbyist magazine, Wireless World. The Wireless World synth was designed by Tim Orr and it had a six-step sequencer and sounded awesome. I now own a Minimoog and a Moog Prodigy. My favourite synth is the VCS3 – because that was the first synth I ever got to play with. I’d love a Moog Voyager but can’t afford one.

What was the very first recording or sound that got you interested into synths?

The very first sounds that were electronic and exciting were the sounds I listened to in the 1960s of random static and morse code bleeps with BFO on my R1155 shortwave radio set (adapted from a Lancaster Bomber). The first sound I knew was from a synth was from an EMS VCS3 at the electronic music society at Imperial College in 1970. I saw Brian Eno perform at the Royal College of Art in 1970 with Roxy Music, then I saw Hawkwind who had an all synth line-up at one point – I was hooked on synths after that. Zero Time by Tonto’s Expanding Head Band was the first all synth recording that blew my mind.

I have a radio documentary from ABC Radio National Australia called Analog Revolution, you mention Bob Moog being more interested in Sun Ra's Cadillac more than his music, I guess Bob just loved to find out how things worked. Did Bob help you the most o the book?
Bob was an amazing character – goofy, intense, and worldly (always swearing) and other wordly (little twinkle in his eye as he told a good story) at the same time. He was also a little prickly. Funny enough Bob didn’t want to have too close a relationship with me as he thought it might make the book be seen as less than objective. He was also busy (“doing shit” as he would tell it). He always gave me what time he could and he was one of the least pretentious people I’ve met. He did kindly write a foreword to the book and went through several chapters of the first draft with a fine tooth comb. David Borden of Mother Mallard (first ever live synth ensemble) was nearer at hand (still lives in Ithaca, New York) and hanging out with him was (and still is) a trip.

What do you think of the sudden interest in modular synths? There seems to be at least 20 companies building/selling modular synths now days.

The modular/analog phase was passed over for digital too quickly. In the process lots of great analog sounds were missed. Also there is something wonderfully intuitive about learning about the process of synthesis from simple analog modules. Musical instruments are ultimately about interfaces and analog synths have more “user friendly” interfaces. As Bob Moog once told me “a knob is a musical instrument”.

Do you see the book expanding to include the current modular synths?

Wish I could but I don’t know enough about them to do a convincing job!

Who was the most enjoyable person to interview for your book and why?

There were so many – but I’d pick Malcolm Cecil as the real gem. One of the nicest and most knowledgeable, understated guys you could meet and also hanging out with him and TONTO was the ultimate trip into the past of what electronic music could be. He worked with everyone and after my mates John Robert Lennon and Jim Spitznagel and I interviewed him for Tape Op a letter came in to Tape Op from Pete Townshend saying how Malcolm Cecil had been the key guy influencing him to explore the limits of what an instrument could do (think smashing guitars!).

What was Frank Trocco's contribution to the book?

Love, talking, driving, writing, and fun. Frank came to me as a mature student who needed a project. He was a brilliant interviewer with a background in folk music and we did all the interviews together. He also wrote several draft chapters and commented on and improved everything I wrote. The book was my idea but it’s our joint work. He’s writing a book now about his great love – Navajo shamans.

Do you find it strange that to this day that the majority of the people on the planet still don’t know what a synthesizer is?

Not strange at all. Picture this: Bob Moog in 1964 in an upstate basement messing around with Herb Deutsch and his first synthesizer modules. Bob told me people would walk by, cock their ear and wonder what is that “strange shit” coming out of the basement? They had no clue that this would be the sound for generations to come. They still don’t have much clue where that “strange shit” comes from.

Can you give us your top 10 electronic music albums.

Tonto’s Expanding Head Band, Zero Time.

Mother Mallard, Mother Mallard’s Portable Masterpiece Company, 1970-1973.
Fripp and Eno, No Pussyfooting
Brian Eno, Here Comes the Warm jets

Neu, Neu!
The White Noise, An Electric Storm

Moog Cookbook, Moog Cookbook Plays the Classic Rock Hits
Stockhausen, Stimmung
Wendy Carlos, Clockwork Orange
Tangarine Dream, Phaedra

Wednesday, January 7, 2009