Oli Freke

Tech House / Techno / House

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Gakken SX-150 - a gift!

Well, it's not everyday you receive a mystery gift through post, but today was officially mystery-gift-receiving-thru-the-post day!

It wasn't 100% unexpected as I had an email from a Japanese fan called Tsuyoshi saying that he wanted to send me a toy synth - and it turned out he wasn't joking!

Only a few days later I took delivery of a large parcel covered in Japanese Kanji writing bearing a Kyoto mail address, and this is what I found within:

Inside the box!

'Synthesizer Chronicle' & The Gakken SX-150
Attached to the box is a lovely full colour glossy synth magazine with lots of exciting pictures of classic synths from the MiniMoog to the Roland SH101, and 100's more. There's even a pic of Graham Massey (808 State) playing a Moog Prodigy, same as wot I got.

There's also the circuit diagram for the SX-150, plus instructions on it's assembly and some example patches.

Lots of articles to read, but unfortunately (for me) it's all in Japanese so I can't understand a word of it!


The Thing!
Carefully removing the magazine reveals the box of circuitry and bits that comprise the Gakken SX-150 synthesizer.

To my surprise, it really is a proper (albeit amazingly tiny) synthesizer with the controls one would expect to find on any synth worthy of the name: LFO (sine or square), Filter Cut-off & Resonance, a Pitch Envelope and Attack/Decay.

Even more intriguingly, it has a stylophone type continuous pitch controller. (Can I call it a pitch ribbon? Yeah, why not!)


However, there are important differences between a stylophone and the SX-150. The stylophone (invented in 1967) has a stylus operated keyboard so you can play actual melodies and offers no sound altering possibilities. The SX-150 is the exact opposite - the pitch controller is continuous (making picking out notes quite tricky!), but is able to make a much wider range of sounds with the LFO, filter and pitch envelope all working to make quite a surprising array of sounds and effects for such a 'simple' device.

Particularly good fun is setting a high pitch envelope and sweeping the LFO rate up and down for some serious pitch modulation!


Not only that, but it has proper sockets for output and you can even feed an external audio signal in (not tried that yet, but I will).

As soon as I get a moment I'll record some bits and pieces with it and post them here, but in the meantime you can check out what it sounds like on these links:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=--tJr_fwknM&feature=related (first 25 secs is good!)

I'd just like to say a really big thanks to Tsuyohsi for being so generous in sending me this gift - and I hereby publically promise to use it on the next Cassette Electrik song as a little gesture of thanks for his kindness!

Tsuyoshi is also in a band, in Kyoto, called Flicks, and you should have a listen to his electro/experimental works influenced by everyone from The Slits to Debussy:


In techno, the machine rules…

Tongue in cheek article written for Sound on Sound’s ‘Sounding off’ column…

Drum kits are fine musical instruments, but they should be kept out of electro music! They are not appropriate to the genre, are limited in sonic possibility and, in my opinion, ruin live electronic music. I’m in a gigging electro band and it’s depressing to frequently have to share the (usually tiny) stage with one of these outdated acoustic beasts that one of the other ‘electro’ acts on the bill insist on using.

Before I launch into the reasons for disliking the drum kit in electronica, I should state that, as well as writing electronic music, I do actually also love drums and percussion. I even play the drums, to enhance my understanding of rhythm and swing, and have performed at Glastonbury with the Brazilian rhythm band I am a member of.

However, the acoustic drum kit has no place in electro. Not proper electro, anyway. Not the electro of my youth, bands such as Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream, and Orbital; and not the electro of now, such as Four Tet, Aphex Twin and Kid Carpet.

None of these pioneers felt the need to add an acoustic drum kit to their setup as a sop to tradition. Why would they? They had the infinite expanse of uncharted electronic percussive sound to explore, so why limit it to the cliché of a set of drums?

Drum kits are for rock & roll. They are great for bashing out the heavy 4/4 needed to back up bass guitar, electric guitar and a charismatic singer.

They’re rubbish in electro. They can only do one sound: the drum kit. Electro demands an innovative and imaginative solution to rhythm through the use of drum machines, or by using a sampler to inject any sound in the universe into the percussion section. Imagine if Pink Floyd had tried using a drum kit for ‘On The Run’ instead of anticipating the whole glitch movement in electronica by 20 years. Or imagine the Art Of Noise using an open hi-hat for the intro of ‘Close To The Edit’, instead of a VW starter motor! Of course, there are countless examples of innovative percussion sounds in electronic music; it’s what defines the genre!

Out in the real world, at gigs, drum kits are seriously bad news. Drums are too loud and frequency-wide to allow any nuance of interesting electronics through. So-called ‘electro’ bands who use drum kits should be ashamed. These are the sort of electro outfits that also have bass guitars and electric guitars. Well, I’m sorry, that’s not electro, that’s rock. I don’t care if you do have a laptop on stage adding a tinny percussion track or providing a synth sound for the keyboards, you’re doing rock. It looks like rock, it sounds like rock, and it sucks like rock.

The process of manipulating recordings of real drums and experimenting with drum machines extends the possibilities of sound and music, and has itself generated countless scenes and genres. Where would drum & bass be without the ‘Amen’ break? Or disco without the cheesy cowbell and toms? Or techno without the 909 kick? Or Chicago house without that 808 handclap?

Even just being able to program drums in a style that’s faster and more intricate than a human can play is enough to create entire sub-genres of furious hardcore and breakbeat. Squarepusher, I’m talking to you!

For proof that drum kits are limited by what the human can play, why not watch ‘Monkey Drummer‘ by Aphex Twin on YouTube, for a demonstration of what it would take a human (or monkey) to play even a simple piece of acid-techno.

If this is all true (and it is) you may be asking: ‘why, then, has the music technology industry worked so hard to replicate the sound of the drum kit for us lucky electronic musicians all these years?’ And it would be a fair question. But have you ever actually compared the sound of a Linn drum machine or a TR606 with a real drum?

We’ve been very polite over the years, but let’s face it, no drum machines ever really sounded anything like the real thing; they simply provided an approximate bass thud for a kick, a splash of white noise for the snare and crash, and a plunk of discordant metal for that well known item of drum kit, the cowbell. Realistic? No. Inspiring sources of rhythmic sonic impulse? Definitely!

Drum kits are lovely things, and they have, without a doubt, helped shape the popular music of the 20th Century. But we have to realise that it is now the 21st Century and we have loads of electro to create and celebrate. I’d like to proceed without the curse of the drum kit, thanks very much!

First published in Sound on Sound magazine in August 2007