Something Old -- Something New

= Contents =

1) Something Old
Time For Something New
Real Organ Sounds
Custom Components
Historical Roots
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Something Old

We all need regular changes in our lives to keep from going "stale," set in our ways, don't you think? In that spirit here's a "something new" that recently took over a corner of working space here. It also is an embodiment of "something old." In addition to that, there's something borrowed (from friends), and something blue (several control panels and some HD feet), within the assembly. Please come along with me on a "cook's tour," to see up close what's taken up so much time and energy. You can judge for yourself if it seems worth it. The project has another side -- it's a constructive way to retain some sanity in an increasingly insane and dangerous country and world, no hype there -- a two-sided distraction: both recreational and practical, serious. I hope you find it a bit of a surprise here, those of you who have not had to put up with me directly and discover how crazy I can be...
First let's step back to something which predates the addition. (The tale that follows will also be a good place to thank some generous people who helped make this project a reality.) The setup I use currently dates back to the mid '80s, when the loft studio began to expand first past the Moog synthesizer, the GDS digital synth, and even the two Synergy synths. Here's the extent to which the configuration grew up to 1986 (to the left), during the next six years (center), and then again after 10 more years. The greatest changes happened between '86 and '92. Two new shorter rack cabinets were added and filled up too quickly. I learned about the creative solutions of "Thinkertoy" components (made by Ultimate Support ). Two custom stands now hold most of the non-rack equipment. These took several weeks to build, a lot of trial and error, but were fun and well worth the adventure. A Kurzweil MidiBoard is now the main keyboard controller, with two not so often used Synergy synths above. Note how modest the additional changes are by the third photo (I just took this quick digital pix myself right now, which is why no one is to be seen, as is the case with most of the pix in this new section). There are only a few module changes, that and the omnipresent updating of computer equipment.

Studio 1986

Studio 1992

Studio 2003

Goodness, I just noticed that the stuff on the wall, the paper mache bird my dad made, have not moved much in a decade! In such an evolving field as electroacoustic music it's probably unusual to maintain most of the same configuration for 10+ years. Of course I'm much more interested in making music than playing with technology. Once a fast, convenient setup was achieved it seemed too good to mess with in some trendy "chasing one's own tail." I've come to depend upon the familiarity of everything, but then for most earlier composers stability of a working environment isn't worth much discussion. Traditionally a composer works at a decent piano or the equivalent, a handy drawing board to one side, with some manuscript paper and a pencil with a good eraser -- what's to become outdated there? Perhaps some audio and video equipment is placed nearby, especially to work with another medium, like scoring a film.
If you create music at the start of the 21st century, though, you likely rely on some kind of computer, even if only for notation. You may use it with sequencing software to drive a few synthesizers, perhaps organized in a semicircular work space. There'll be a monitor and keyboard at center front, the rest of the equipment distributed around and within an arm's reach, or a quick scuttle over the floor on a castered office chair. The only stability becomes what you insist upon, no more, no less. You could easily change the entire configuration every month, and many musicians do. That's fine for more flexible, younger minds than mine, or those who have yet to find themselves musically. I LIKE to know where everything is instantly. My studio has become a friendly place to work, where the focus is the work itself, aside from the inevitable troubleshooting distractions that anyone who uses the latest music tools is all too familiar with.

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Time For Something New
= A Custom MIDI Pedalboard =

If you checked out the other end of my studio before 2002, you'd have seen this niche, directly in front of the seldom used Moog Synthesizer. This is where I spent hours with two Kurzweil synths, the K2000S and K2000R, on most of my recent sound design work. Chris Martirano was my Kurzweil contact and musician friend who helped me get the 2000s up and operating, customized, and solve some initial bugs (as he did again for the K2600's described below). This is the arrangement used on "Tales of Heaven and Hell," and the filmscore for "Woundings." The small Yamaha keyboard at top left can play the rack-mounted K2000R, but most of the time I preferred the convenience of the regular K2000S, to the right. Long MIDI cords tied both instruments over to the rack sitting to the left of the 88-note Midiboard you can see up above, where two MidiTimePiece interface boxes are mounted. These are MotU units, and allow Digital Performer to operate the Kurzweil synths from across the room. There's also a vintage Yamaha SY77 nearby, and a newer Korg Z-1, too. They're dandy for certain kinds of timbre creation.

K2000 Work Niche

In the summer of 2001 I added a K2600S to the studio -- first new synth in some years. The first month I couldn't get enough of the convincing "triple strike" piano sound, and began practicing long hours again, as I used to. It was great to get back at making music, the skills of moving fingers precisely and expressively. The chore of remastering all my older albums had dragged me away from that. I'm not a great performer, as I've often said, but I do sight read well, and enjoy improvising new things as well as hacking away at the classical repertoire. When I ordered the K2600 online, I noticed a small set of Kurzweil disks which contained pipe organ sounds and samples, both classical and theater ranks. That sounded interesting. I'd taken several months of organ lessons during high school, but as we couldn't afford an organ, these were largely wasted. But my fascination with pipe organs was a major influence on the path that led me to the synthesizer.
A few years ago a nimble-fingered musician friend of many years, Clark Ferguson (he's also the custom instrument manager for Allen Organ Company) built something directly inspirational to this project. It was a five manual, with AGO pedalboard, custom instrument for his home studio, which planted a seed for what became "Wurly II." Talk about the serendipity of life, at least when the magic is behaving itself. Let me show you his impressive fully MIDI synth, "pipe-organy" instrument, in this scan, below left, from the cover of his recent "Clark Ferguson -- Film Scores" CD. Clark really knows how to play this elaborate instrument, too. The second photo shows him taking a photo break in the middle of work scoring a film project.

Clark's Instrument

Clark at Work

Looks like great fun! Something old and new were gracefully combined, same path I was heading down with a powerful new musical tool, a great feeling keyboard, about to try out some pipe organ sounds. After loading these into the 2600, as usual it took some time to organize and customize the new programs with all the expressive "hooks" I'm used to. I couldn't help but smile to be exploring a medium which I'd ignored pretty well since graduate school. The VAST engine of the K2000 / 2500 / 2600, along with decent samples of real pipe ranks, is a pretty heady mix. Everything you need to create a really impressive replica of "The King of Instruments" is right there.
You can then bring it into the 21st Century, add powerful digital synth tricks, certainly some velocity and aftertouch sensitivity, morph pipe sounds into new hybrids based on a mature art form of musical timbre. Add other kewl sounds, like some of the definitive strings Gary Garritan has been assembling so meticulously (read all about his sound libraries HERE), toss in the best of one's own custom sounds and samples. Exciting stuff, methinx, sans any hype, and room to grow in. The sounds I heard from those first organ disks were not quite so "wonderful" as all that, but they were very good, enough to impress an ol' curmudgeon like me.
In the summer of 2001 I wondered if there was a way to add on some kind of MIDI pedalboard, even a small one, so that I might be able to practice some actual organ parts with it. I spent several weeks searching for something I could afford, and tried out a few of the options in the local music stores. Um. What I learned was that there were two distinct camps. You could find a few reasonable one octave pedalboards which supported velocity sensing, and some other convenience features from MIDI that would be depressing to give up. A few were rather flimsy affairs, and jumped around the floor when played briskly. Yuk. The other camp supported what you'd need for an electronic organ: standard organ pedalboard size, but no velocity or aftertouch, no program changes, or customization, other things I was unwilling to put up without. I also didn't have the tools, experience and parts to build my own from scratch, as Clark had. Nutz.
Then I remembered that my acoustic piano up in the front of the loft has a retrofit Gulbransen optical pickup system. It's a wonderful device, and has been dependable and powerful and most welcome. Unfortunately, it's not in the studio proper, where I do my composing and recording. So it's gotten less use that I hoped for originally, when it was given to me by some generous people at the company. I wrote again to my contact there, Jack Butler. Did they have any devices that could turn an old organ pedalboard into a good MIDI controller?
The answer I got back from Jack was sorta no and sorta yes. No -- they did not have an actual pickup device for pedalboards. Yes, they did have a solution that might work. One of their engineers had come up with an "off the record" modification to their KS-20 unit recently. It was one of those amusing stories, his daughter was a church organist, and had started to use a pair of Gulbransen pickups beneath the keys of the manuals, so she could save her performances and improvisations each week via a MIDI sequencer. Ah -- but the pedalboard -- what to do for that?! Was there any way her engineering dad could figure out to reproduce those notes as well?
The solution he devised was extremely clever and logical. I'd have tried cutting up a keyboard strip and mounting the individual note pickups along a wood strip, one pickup beneath each pedal key. Wire them together again. That ought work. But it was a lot of risky work, tearing apart the printed circuit boards like that, one might damage the whole thing. Instead he'd taken a full 88-note strip, disassembled it into the four 22-note boards that make it up, and then mounted them on wood supports in four overlapping segments beneath the pedalboard keys. There was at least one pickup on every note. THEN -- you'd tell the onboard computer what sensors were going to be played by which notes and "map out" the rest (many pickups fell in the cracks, only about a third would be useful, due to the vastly different note-spacings). The procedure was simple -- just play the pedals one at a time slowly, from lowest to topmost note. And a new software subroutine he added did the rest. Damn clever.

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Jack suggested I might consider this kit, even though the company did not formally "support" organ pedal installations. Other customers already were using it that way, though, and all reported good to excellent results. I decided to give it a try, since my old and not often used Yamaha Electone E-5 organ has a very study and attractive 25-note pedalboard. If I could retrofit the new pickup boards beneath this, I might be in business, and it would cost a lot less than a new similar sized board, even forgetting for a moment about velocity and pressure sensing (btw- both poly and channel pressure are supported by Gulbransen -- hey!). Yes, it would be a compromise, the E-5 doesn't use a full AGO 32-note set of pedals, but the smaller flat but radiating 25-note version made popular on Hammond and other electronic organs. Since I'm no organist, and seldom would need the extra top seven notes, this seemed a reasonable place to start.
I could always change over to an AGO size later. With the limited space I have, and the clumsiness of using a computer beside the rig if the pedals sat over 10" above floor level to each side, I'm not convinced that the purist approach would be preferable. Concave is easier to play than flat, but for 25 notes the maximum difference is less than an inch (and Ethel Smith managed pretty dern well). Shux. I ordered the KS20 installation kit Butler suggested. When unpacked I found one long steel supported pickup strip, which I placed on top of the new K2600's keyboard to examine closely:

K2600 wi Gulbransen

The kit included sundry connecting cables, mounting hardware, complete instructions, plus the brains of the pickup system, the KS20 control box shown next (also resting on top of the new 2600), below left. It's a well-engineered device, I've grown very fond of it since using it. If you look closely at one end you'll get a good idea of the elegant way the sensor strip is arranged, below center. Those precision optical moving vanes resemble the famous Loch Ness monster prankster photo from 1934. (Robert Wilson, the prankish London physician and coperpetrator with Wetherell, later confessed in great detail, like the similar "crop circle" partners in crimininy sakes, Bower and Chorley. But by then many had grown too fond of the hoax to admit they'd been cleverly duped. Think also of Conan Doyle, far too proud and gullible to admit he'd fallen for two schoolgirls' cutout "fairies".) The manufacturer impishly calls them "Nessies." Unlike the modeling clay (plasticine) long neck and head on a toy submarine of that well circulated image (below right), the Gulbransen "Nessies" are not a "fake in the lake." So reports of seeing and touching them on a sensor strip count as verified "Encounters of the Tangible Kind" (wink nudge say no more)...

Gulbransen KS20

Some Real "Nessies"

A Fake "Nessie"

Before they could be put to work, there was the creative task of mounting the sensors properly beneath the 1974 vintage E-5 pedalboard. I began by refinishing and polishing up the old board, some signs of wear, a few scratches. That came out nicely, it looks brand new. Since it's flat, not concave, the strip would not have to be broken up as it would be for installation beneath an AGO pedal set. There still was some carpentry needed, in several frustrating false-starts, before the whole thing came together. I took my time, a whole month, as there was no rush. You can see the redone underside below left, before the sensors were mounted. The narrow wood strip was added to support one edge of the steel mounting plate. Note the 25 small wood blocks, one beneath each key, which we'll look at next. Several hours learning to use a wood rasp brought about the needed clearance cutaways in the four long supports that run in the B-C and E-F gaps of two octaves. I learned "the hard way" that all unused sensors ought have their "Nessies" carefully removed, and saved in a zip bag for future use. When only the active sensors remain, it gives the the strip the gapped look of a "grin with many missing teeth," shown below right:

Underside Pedalboard

 CU Sensor Strip 

The strip was mounted and removed many times, while working out the best position in each dimension. On the bottom of the pedal keys I had to cut and mount short wood blocks to reach downwards half an inch, to the top of the sensors. The other option, routing a deep gouge into those four support strips, would have weakened the structure greatly. The small blocks are glued in place along a straight line, and sanded very smooth. The "Nessies" ought be slightly depressed when a key is fully up, and not quite fully depressed at the bottom limit. It's fortunate that organ pedalboards use approximately the same key depression depth as on a keyboard, so this is no problem. You can see a sensor in its final position in the next photo, which also shows one of the small curved cutaways mentioned above, and a simple homemade black "end cap" for the sensor strip. For cosmetic reasons I slipped in a long black fiberboard strip (visible here) to hide the "glint" of the steel base plate when you look straight down between pedals. Since the pedalboard is not as wide as an 88-note keyboard, the rightmost 22-note board was not needed, and all its sensors were left in place. At first it simply jutted out on the side, as seen in this preliminary test, below right. (Compare the previous shot, the same end -- after the strip had been cut.)

Sensor in Position

First Try Install

It was awkward and dangerous to leave it there, so I hacksawed the base plate at the seam for the top circuit board. Jack kindly provided me with some extra connectors, so I could improvise a short extension cable, and mount that top board separate from the rest of the strip, while still connected electrically. It will provide several useful WurliTzer-style trigger pedal keys someday, since these sensors are still active, if now unused.
After all the modifications it was time to test the whole rig out. Various effective and insightful MIDI expression pedal ideas came from friend Clark (he even sent me two mint Allen expression shoes--gorsh!), and also lots of practical feedback, while I tried to get this "spit and band-aid" test assembly up and operating. And here's what sat in the studio for several months of trial and practice, clumsy, ugly, but effective. Hey, it woiks! For the temp setup seen below the 2600 rests on one of the old Synergy (Crumar) synth stands, the K2000S awkwardly placed on top. The customized pedalboard had to sit 2" up in the air on the synth stand's legs and a sturdy foam block, which made playing quite constricted, but this was only a temporary setup, after all. That's the E-5's organ bench, also refinished, and the home made music rack from the main studio MIDI setup seen up at the top of this page, here balanced on the K2000.
A quick observation: it was a disconcerting experience at first to have a touch sensitive pedalboard -- I sounded like a spastic pogo stick rider: "bip - BA! - bip - bip - BA!" Never learned THAT skill before, even as my fingers take it for granted. I found that a typical toe depress was MUCH louder than a typical heel depress, for example. Ditto black notes vs. white. That's probably how one pedals an organ, just never noticed it before. But, I'm pleased to report, after about a month's worth of practice you learn pretty quickly how to play expressively via foot, and discover so many musical advantages that "mere" organ pedal touch (also organ manual touch) seems rather flat and, yes, "insensitive"... (one can't help but smile at the irony here, in that the earlier direct mechanical or "tracker" style organ action provides a natural touch sensitivity, mostly of the attacks, which was lost when pneumatic, and then electrical action was added -- win a few, lose a few).

Prototype "Organ"

NOTE: There may be other musicians who will want to assemble a similar MIDI pedalboard custom installation. I can definitely recommend the Gulbransen KS20 as a solution with a great deal of elegance, power and little compromise. (The company now has a new name, MIDI 9, a new website, new lower prices, and has replaced the KS20 with a new line of controllers, some of which provide for organ pedal installations -- yeay!) You will have to find a physical set of organ pedals from one of several sources (even eBay occasionally has these on auction), and be willing to attempt some modest woodworking assembly on your own, as the factory DOES NOT supply nor support custom pedalboard installation kits. If you do go ahead, I've saved a set of instructions that should be studied when you initialize your unit to operate with whatever pedals you choose (12 to 32-notes AGO or more). You can construct a full MIDI organ, or head in more innovative directions. Please note, these were written for my own purposes only, but I will post them here for curious, enterprising musicians to print out and refer to, if you wish. It makes initialization a straightforward series of steps, avoiding several pitfalls of this nonstandard application. Initializing Instructions for Pedalboard use of the KS20 HERE. (Opens a new window you may print from. Close that window, as with any of the photos here, to return here.)
Text and all images by Wendy Carlos
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