After spending most of my life using electronic musical equipment made by other people it was something of a shock to receive a box in the mail full of bits and pieces and an instruction manual giving instructions on how to put it all together. But after a few hours with a smoking soldering iron and a small loop of solder I actually found myself with a fully functioning modular analog voltage controlled sound generator. It really is a marvelous feeling to realise that only hours earlier this amazing sound machine was incapable of doing anything. With the front panel safely wrapped in tissue paper, a sealed bag containing a number coded circuit board, and a few containers full of IC's, transistors, capacitors and wire, I seriously considered sending it all back and paying the extra for a ready made version. But that would have been beside the point. It's the duty of every electronic music maker to construct at least one DIY synthesizer kit in a lifetime so here was my chance.
The first thing to do was read the instructions, which translated into a quick glance through the eleven page document before opening all the bags and containers and spreading the contents all over the table.
What I should have done is familiarised myself with the instructions before rushing to get it all together. This meant figuring out how to read the color bars on the resistors so that I knew which one went where. At first this seemed a really difficult thing to do until I re-read the instructions and saw how easy it really was.Once that was all figured out, and I'd checked that all the component parts were all there (which was easy because there's a check list) I set about actually soldering the IC sockets to the board. I messed up here straight away because after soldering seven of the sockets to the board I then realised there was one left over that didn't fit. I soon realised that one of the sockets I'd already soldered was in the wrong place. A simple mistake but one which wouldn't have happened if I'd have spent more time double checking to make sure all the parts were in place before soldering, as the instructions told me to.
After the sockets were all in place, which were super easy to solder, I then turned my attention to the resistors, and spent a little while figuring out the color coding system that's used to distinguish one from the other. It turned out to be a lot simpler than I thought it would be, with each color having it's own number and a gold or silver band to tell you what the tolerance is. After sorting them all out into groups I started fitting them into the corresponding places on the circuit board while using the charts at the back of the instruction manual. I'd glanced at these briefly earlier and figured they had nothing to do with me, but now here I was reading them like a road map.
Once all the transistors were in place and soldered it was time to put all the other interesting stuff in the proper place, again reading the instructions very carefully to make sure I didn't mess up again.
Construction Problems Encountered
Other than the mistakes I made by not reading the instructions carefully there was only one section in the instructions which made me unsure as to how to proceed. What direction the resistors should go in.
Looking at one you have a wire sticking out of either end and a bit in the middle with four colored bands painted on it, and I wasn't sure if it made a difference which way they were fixed to the board. With the gold or silver band on the left, or on the right. In the end I decided it didn't make a difference, otherwise it would have been mentioned in the instructions. It turns out that it's good practice to put the gold band on the right so that the color code reads from left to right. This is with the silkscreen on the board in the readable position.I would have felt better knowing for sure at the time though.
Getting It Going
For starters, as with all electronic sound generating devices, you're going to have to hook it up to a power source before anything will happen, and as with most modules of this type you can't just plug it into the wall, you'll need a power supply. This came in the form of a hefty wall wart power supply (a PS-200), which is capable of powering up to 8 or 10 synth modules and is available from Blacet for about $25.
Just to make sure all was working okay I just stuck the ends of the wires, coming from the Chaos, into the socket on the end of the wall-wart cable (making sure to follow the instructions carefully), plugged it into the wall and checked to make sure non of the components felt hot, or caught fire. I then pressed the little Gate button, and the LED lit up.
After removing the wires and fitting a permanent power socket I decided that now was a good time to hook it up to our amplifier, and put it through its paces. But before getting down to business there was the matter of fitting it into our rack, along with the mixer, amplifier and power conditioner.
What Does It Do, How Does It Sound
In our rush to get the thing working, and actually making noise, I didn't read the manual before powering it up. So after connecting it to our system I touched the magic button again and was greeted with a head splitting screech from the monitors, due to the fact that all the controls just happened to be set in the scariest combination possible.
Instead of taking the easy way out, and reducing the volume on the mixer, I decided to try and tame the beast by twiddling the knobs frantically before I lost consciousness, and within seconds was luxuriating in one of the sweetest tones I've heard in a while.
Ultimately all I had done was zero the Noise Clock, Noise Filter and PWM controls, and reduced the VCO setting to to about 30%. And after spending several minutes turning it up and down to alter the pitch, was then able to fatten the sound by using the PWM control.
Obviously there's a lot more to this sound module than at first meets the ear, and before long I was able to create some very unique sounds, the kind which are almost impossible to get on a mass production unit. I could go on at length about the great sounds this module is capable of, and although it is designed to be triggered by external hardware of various types we didn't manage to use this particular feature, primarily because we had nothing available to use as a trigger.
Another observation worth making is the high quality of workmanship, not only of the pots (which were some of the smoothest we've ever had the pleasure of twiddling) but also of the front panel itself. Obviously no expense has been spared to supply you with the best components money can buy. And for someone who spends all their time using a mouse and tapping away at a keyboard while making music it'll be a welcome opportunity to get back to basics once in a while to get that magic sound.
Needless to say we had it singing after only a few minutes, and when we ran a signal from the output of our Mac through it we were able to get some stunning results from this marvelous device which should see a marked increase in popularity as musicians move steadily away from mass market dedicated workstation synths.