Analog synthesizers and the [incredibly complex] Cylon voice effect

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Lorenzo von Matterhorn
Jan 31, 2009
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My joke comment to him would be, "OK, now use a computer to make that useful by allowing indivdual oscillator control." Anyway, too bad Keith Emerson is no longer around.

21 Sep 2020
The Intense Sound of 1,000 Analog Oscillators
“Look Mum, No Computer” celebrates volts over bits
When the COVID-19 lockdown came to the United Kingdom, Sam Battle became a man on a mission. Battle has created many unusual electronic musical instruments under the sobriquet of Look Mum No Computer, including an organ made out of singing Furbys and a synthesizer-bicycle hybrid. As people isolated themselves, he embarked on his most ambitious project yet: the KiloDrone.

Many of Battle’s projects involve analog synthesizers, in which a tone is generated by a circuit oscillating at audio frequencies. Multiple oscillators allow a synth to generate multiple tones simultaneously, creating richer sounds. Which raises the question: Can you ever have too many oscillators?

The KiloDrone was built to answer that question. It’s a drone synth, which means it produces sustained sounds, rather than the characteristic attack and decay of, say, a piano. Typically, a drone synth has two to eight oscillators. The KiloDrone, as its name suggests, has 1,000.

The genesis of the KiloDrone came when Battle was “messing around with some transistors, and found a circuit that was lighting up an LED when it shouldn’t be,” he explains. Battle found that he’d rediscovered the reverse-avalanche oscillator, which requires just a capacitor, resistor, and transistor. He realized he could use it as an adjustable audio oscillator, and relied on one for a Red Bull sponsorship in which he built a light-controlled synthesizer out of a drink can in 2017. After that, while he was touring in Europe, a friend joked that he should build “a big box of them.”

“Whenever something captures my imagination, it sort of stays there until it’s done,” says Battle. So he built the 100-oscillator MegaDrone. “And it didn’t seem like that was enough,” says Battle, who quickly settled on 1,000 oscillators as his next target. But “I kept on procrastinating. Then at the beginning of lockdown I was like, ‘I’ve got a few months. I may as well pick up that project.’ ”

A 1,000-oscillator analog synth isn’t exactly portable. The KiloDrone is wall mounted, 2.3 meters high, and 4 meters wide. Each oscillator is connected to an LED as well as a tuning knob and volume control. The oscillators are grouped in banks of 10, with each bank equipped with a master tuning and level control. (You can buy one of the printed circuit boards used to make the banks for US $53 and build your own smaller, standalone drone.)

Despite its size, the KiloDrone draws just 1.2 amperes at 12 volts. Consequently, it dissipates little heat, which keeps the oscillators’ frequency stable. “A lot of people were very reserved about [the KiloDrone initially],” says Battle. “They were like, ‘Oh, by the time you [adjust] the last oscillator it’ll be out of tune.’”

Dial-A-Song: Sam Battle, aka Look Mum No Computer, with his KiloDrone, a musical instrument with 1,000 individually adjustable oscillators.


Checking out a Massive Home Made Synthesizer

Secret of the Cylon Voice has been revealed

Inspired by the 2013 Janec Van Der Lans video "Secret Signal of Excitation" I recently started researching if the Cylon voice equipment list has been fully discovered. Through some lucky connections in the BSG fanbase, I tracked down maybe the last person alive who actually worked on the production process the Cylon Centurion voice, for which there is zero "behind the scenes" information. He still works in Hollywood visual effects production, with a long IMDB list of credits. We spoke for 25 minutes, & he revealed to me 1. The ultra rare synthesizer used to create the oscillator- 2. Which exact model EMS vocoder used- 3. The very strange distortion, which came from overloading the mic input on an extremely rare vintage effects unit (the effect itself only used in 1-3 scenes) 4. the type of console used- 5. the vintage tube compressor - 6. ONE of the several tape machines used in the recording/editing process. I have rounded up all of this gear, except the synth, which I visited at a studio for one day, and am putting together a brief documentary about it. Hope to have it done by the end of the year, will post here when complete.