Analog Synthesizer

Keith Emerson - Moog Synthesizer
Emerson Lake and Palmer Keyboardist Keith Emerson:   In-concert using his Moog Analog Synthesizer

Moog started it all. Not that the Moog was the first however.

What???

“Just what the heck are you talking about?” You may be asking.


I’m talking about electronic music in general and electronic synthesized music in particular. To get a sense of the definitions, you can probably do well by going to Wikipedia. I however can give you my take on the subject.

When I first heard my first synthesizer music, I hated it. It was in the mid-late 60′s and it just wasn’t something I liked. However, towards the end of that decade, a band came along that changed my whole take on music synthesizers from that point on. The group was Emerson, Lake and Palmer or sometimes known as ELP. The musician was Keith Emerson. The song was “Lucky man.” And the sound was Moog… Very Moog. Greg Lake played bass, wrote a lot of the music and sang lead vocals. Carl Palmer was nothing short of incredible on drums. But, in my opinion, it was Keith and his Moog that provided the REAL “majak” of the band.

At that time I pronounced “moog” more like something a cow would say, but soon learned it was “Moog” that rhymed with “vogue” and that it was the last name of a man named Robert (Bob) Moog that brought it out of the science laboratory and into the hands of common or maybe I should say “uncommon” man. Yes, The magical Moog synthesizer. Others came out like the Arp synthesizer which “The Who” made popular along with Oberheim and a few other synthesizers, but it was the Moog that was the one everyone raved about.


 

In the early 70’s it seemed all the bands had synthesizers. Music synthesizers back then were what they called Monophonic. That means that they pretty much played just one note at a time. It wasn’t until a bit later that they created the more modern Polyphonic synthesizer. Several musicians like Emerson, Rick Wakeman of the band “Yes” and others would compensate by playing two keyboards, one with each hand.

PAIA 2700 Synthesizer
This is a PAIA 2700 Synthesizer – It isn’t the one I had, but it is a picture I found on the net that looks very close to the one I built, one piece at a time, payday to payday.

I enjoyed listening to many different bands playing synthesizers, but two things happened almost at once. For many years, I enjoyed building ‘things’ from electronics. I never was or am, what you would call an electronic engineer, as I never applied myself and built my skills in math. So I didn’t design circuits. But I really enjoyed and was pretty good at building other peoples circuits and then modifying them. My friends dubbed me “Rayzister” to illustrate my love of playing with electronics, creating little things that would make weird sounds, flash lights or maybe actually doing something useful.


In the waning days of 1973, Emerson, Lake and Palmer released an album that would reach into my belly and yank my opinion about synthesizers out, spit on them so they would stick and wrap them around my mind. The album was “Brain Salad Surgery.”

“Welcome back my friends, to the show that never ends. We’re so glad you could attend, Come inside! Come inside!”

I was in the Air Force at the time and was a fledgling drummer playing in a garage band. But the other thing happened around the same time period was: A company in Oklahoma City released a kit of a modular synthesizer that I could buy one piece at a time and before long, have my own, albeit smaller in stature, my own personal musical synthesizer. The name of the company was PAiA Electronics I knew about them because  the founder, John Simonton, used to write quite a few articles in a magazine I subscribed to, called “Popular Electronics.” The synthesizer they made was the model 2700.

And…yes…I built it!


 

I loved that synthesizer. Although I was not a keyboardist, I still loved playing that thing and picked up a bit on keyboard as I went along. I had absolutely the most fun making different noises and trying to create different sounds. I spent a lot of time ‘playing’ with it. In fact, I was told many times “you spend more time with that synthesizer than you do me.” and other sayings of similar meanings.

But as time went on, I spent less and less time with that thing, until one day, in a fit of despair, I placed it on the curb along with a bunch of other stuff for my weekly trash removal. An action that I kick myself to this day of doing.

PAiA modular synthesizer
The PAiA 9700 modular synthesizer
In fact, the PAiA company is still around.

PAiA.com

Paia came out with the model 4700 which, to me, looked like little rack boxes that you could open up like a suitcase and place it on your keyboard plug it all in and start making music. Sort of like a component synthesizer rather than an all in one unit. One of the modules in the 4700 series that I really wanted was their 4780 sixteen step analog sequencer. But, I simply never got around to buying it. Sometime around 1997, with cheap MIDI keyboards abounding, they dropped their keyboard product and came out with the 9700 modular series model synthesizer.

I had always kept up with that electronic kit company getting their catalogs on a fairly regular basis and towards the end of 1990’s, PAiA came out with another new synthesizer design. It was the PAiA 9700 Series Modular Synthesizer, the third since the model 2700 that I originally bought.

About that time, I took job making much more money than I had ever made before doing web design that I had learned in my previous job working as a webmaster as a local community college. I built and played with that new 9700 synthesizer, but I never got back the emotion I had with the 2700. The 9700 was actually a better unit and did with only four modules way more than my old synthesizer could only dream of doing. But…it wasn’t the same. Something was gone. So the ole 9700 got put in the place where no once loved or admired ‘thing’ ever wants to find itself, the back of a closet, or worse, the cabinet above the refrigerator. But at least, this time, unlike it’s older cousin, it didn’t make it out to the dreaded curb!

Several moves happened since then and the 9700 finally did make it into it’s own white box with bubble wrap and the word “S Y N T H E S I Z E R” marked on it’s top and one side to denote its contents. It spent several years in a blistering hot to f-freezing cold, damp metal storage unit waiting for a final place to live.

It came in August, 2009. The new house. Purchased not far from where the PAiA 9700 synthesizer was living as a bunch of individual parts in several plastic bags, waiting for me to purchase it in 2000. After the move, many things were going on. and the little 9700 “Rayzistor” synthesizer began its new life in the back of the closet in the guest bedroom. That bedroom was slated at purchase as the “Ham and Electronics” room, but as things go, other priorities pushed those delegations into different directions. So the synthesizer sat… and sat. And sat some more.

plexus_wallofpaia
The Great Wall of PAiA

One day in the early summer of 2003, I was talking to a friend at work and he told me that he didn’t like music that was primarily analog synthesizer much. That seemed to jog a memory bit in my head and make it wiggle around some. I googled “PAiA synthesizer” and up came some search results. I clicked on the “images” link to see if I could view some old nostalgic pics of synthesizers like of my old 2700 PAiA. There was John staring back at me from a old monochrome picture, and all around him were pictures of hundreds of copies of his creations. However there was one picture that I kept going back to. It was i picture of a giant rack of PAiA synthesizers.

PAiA-4780 Sequencer
PAiA-4780 Sequencer

One of the things that caught my eye on this picture was the number of sequencers in the rack. I can make out an easy five, but I bet there are at least three more. To my knowledge, the 4780 Sequencer was PAiA’s most expensive synthesizer component. And, although I never owned one, I would bet that it was also the most complex to build. However, I have to say that whoever it is at PAiA that writes the assembly instructions, does such a great job, that a second grader can do it. (Maybe) Anyway, their instructions are second to none, and are very easy and detailed allowing almost anyone with a slight degree of dexterity to build a complete, and working unit. I say that, because they even tell you the colors of the resisters in the instructions. So, if you can see, know the difference between red, blue and green, can poke a wire into a hole, and can check a place on the instructions, then you can build a PAiA kit.

Sample of PAiA Instructions
Sample of PAiA Instructions – Click for larger picture

Recently, I needed some help with my Midi to CV module. Since I work in Oklahoma City, I ventured to Edmond where they have their technical office. I first contacted them via email and a guy named Scott emailed me back with the necessary instructions and times. I went, and got to meet Scott Lee, Director of Tech Services with PAiA. He was friendly and seemed to know everything I jabbered about. I was truly amazed with his knowledge. He took care of my problem and I even got a little BSing in. I was just like a kid in a candy store. I always dreamed of going to PAiA and there I was. I was nervous. Sorta like meeting a person you admired for a long time, and now it’s finely here. I felt like I was jabbering like a six year old about anything and everything. I wasn’t really all that cool and collected though, as when I was getting ready to leave, I accidentally knocked some little part off a shelf that I was propping my hand up on, and it vanished somewhere, probably deep underneath the shelf unit. However, Scott was cool. He didn’t even get mad at me. (I was mad at myself for even doing that) Man! was I embarrassed that I would do something like that! Where are my manners when in someone else’s castle. Mom taught me better than that!


Anyway… I now have a new little project. I was digging around the net and on eBay looking for that long lost sequencer I never bought. I found several plans to build one, and now… the project is on. I have been doing some research on it by looking at many different ones out there. So my idea is to try to incorporate some of the things I like from them into mine. Just gotta manage my time so as to fit it in. I’ll have the results here as they come.

FR-7 - FracRak Case
PAiA FR-7 – FracRak Case

The first requirement is: that it stays within the physical confines of my PAiA 9700. This means that all the modules I build will fit into the same chassis that the 9700 does. With that, I found what is called the “FracRak” which PAiA invented, but many of the Euro synthesizer manufacturers have adopted something closely compatible. At least mechanical. FracRak is a conjoined word that means ‘Fractional Rack’ The standard size of equipment racks are nineteen inches in width. See my post about rack mount heights. The height of the PAiA FracRak is what they call 3U’s high. This is approximately five and a quarter inches high. The “Frac” comes in because what they did was take that 5 1/4″ high rack and cut it horizontally. So since a full rack space is 19″ horizontally, and the FracRak unit is 5 1/4 high, they came up with a new 1U unit that is 5 1/4 high and one and a half inches wide. So basically the FracRak is three “regular” rack units high (vertically) with the fractional rack spaces going horizontally within the frame.

There will be, from time to time, updates for this project.

Well, here’s an update… I have tabled the Sequencer project for now, in lieu of a purchase of a couple of them off ebay. These use the new European case format called the EuroRack. So as a result of my purchase, I have begun to integrate the new format into my home synthesizer. As this is a ongoing “living” project by the time to see a picture of it, I will have changed something. But, here it is in its latest incarnation. As you can see, there’s lots of room for more stuff.

As they say…stay tuned.

Update: I grabbed one of my old stereo racks I had stuffed in the back corner in the garage and added some rack rails and mounted the PAiA and the other synthesizer stuff in it. It looks a little ragged, but it seems to hold all the stuff pretty well.

NOTE: Notice those big red knobs!
I put those big red knobs on the pitch control of the Voltage Controlled Oscillators (VCO) to make it just a bit easier to adjust the pitch than I could when they had those smaller “blue” knobs. (It really did make a difference.)

 

ONE NOTE: My good ole buddy and pal, John Simonton who founded PAiA passed away in 2005 at the age of 62. Now PAiA Electonics is located in two places, Austin, Texas and Edmond, Oklahoma. I’m not exactly sure what happened to cause this, but what I am sure about, is the fact that they are still around. There is another guy that is in essence carrying on the PAiA legacy. He has been with PAiA for as long as I can remember and his name is Scott Lee. He is an excellent engineer and technician and provides PAiA the technical “know how” to keep is running from that standpoint.

And that’s good news for me, because I can still buy some great PAiA stuff.

John Simonton never knew me, but through his creations, I have known a bit of John.

Rest In Peace, John Simonton!

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