Production Notes: Études III – Red Box


The previous Études release – in my continuing series on small, single-instrument studies – was my first to use a “fixed architecture” synthesizer, so I was anxious to get back to the possibilities of modular synthesizers. I designed the Red Box initially for a live performance, which went well, but it went through a few revisions in order to achieve a more expressive, real-time palette of timbres and methods of control.

The Red Box is so named due to its focus on the modules (and visual aesthetics) of Verbos Electronics, which are inspired by the work of Don Buchla. In this way, there is a genealogical connection to the first release in this series, Études I: Blue Box. The “Blue Box” instrument’s workflow was based on Buchla Music Easel.

By the way, it’s not lost on me how gauche and fetishistic it is to use one’s instrument as one’s own album cover. It was something I pained over for months at the outset. But the point of the Études series is to be a study in process and technique…hence the series’ name, and approach I took to its packaging.

Technique and Instruments

This album was recorded in just one week, end to end, including the bonus tracks. Much more material was recorded outside of this time period, but none of it made it to the final cut. The final mix balancing, album sequencing, and mastering took many weeks thereafter. To this day, I’m not sure why it all seemed to come together in that particular week. Of course, rehearsals and compositions with the system came months before the tracks you hear on the album.

As with all the tracks in the Études series, they are recorded live with no overdubs, quite often on the first take.

The Verbos Electronics modules that dominate the Red Box (which technically no longer exists – see the last note at the end of this article) are the Harmonic Oscillator (sound source), Voltage Multistage (sequencer), and the Scan and Pan (mixer). Alongside these are a tiny handful of effects, clocks, modulators, utilities, and other mixers. Mutable Instruments Peaks was a key component for its ability to be an envelope generator, dual LFO, drum machine, or dual four-step sequencer; it was used in every single one of these capacities on various tracks. Like the Blue Box, a tiny Intellijel Dixie Mk I supports the main, more characterful oscillator, although many of the deepest bass sounds are just from this one single oscillator.

The Voltage Multistage sequencer takes some getting used to, but it is intuitive, fast, immediate, and when run into a quantizer, creates lovely little trills and runs when set to glide in between voltages. It handles basslines on some tracks, melodies on others, and just modulation on others. It’s arguably the heart of the system, responsible for the structure and sound of the compositions than any other system component.

Several effects help define the Red Box’s sound. I’ve always loved the sound of spring reverb, and this is my first recording that uses a large-sized reverb tank (19″ long). The Audio Damage DubJr delay always ran in sync with the master clock, providing nice audio glitch effects when its delay time was modulated, and the Audio Damage Shapes waveshaper gave a nice bite to some layers.

While the Scan and Pan is intended to be used as a stereo panning mixer, I used  it as a two-bus, four-channel mixer. I found that I had more options when I used the left channel for one effects bus, and the right channel for another. Most of the stereo panning in the final mixes was achieved by the Sputnik Six Channel Mixer (again, another Buchla interpretation in the Eurorack format).

The very last module to be added prior to recording this album was the Epoch Modular Benjolin, a complex module designed by Rob Hordijk that’s nearly a synth voice unto itself (dual oscillators, filters, and modulation routing onboard). While many use the Benjolin for a chaotic noise and modulation source, which is certainly on display here, sometimes it holds down straightforward melodic duties. Its shift-register-like “Rungler” circuit acts as a modulator on almost every track. It wound up being a nice foil to the smooth and morphing sounds of the Harmonic Oscillator.

The compositions were given a tiny amount of space and breath by digital reverb added in post; every track is lightly kissed by ValhallaDSP’s Vintage Verb. As usual, all the tracks were mastered through an all-analogue, tube-heavy processing chain, from gain lifts via transformers and to hitting a high-end analogue-to-digital converter hard on the way back into the computer.

A Special Note About the Teaser

I’ve gotten many questions about how the teaser video for Études III: Red Box was made. It features both stop motion and time lapse photography, and features the use of two different intumescent materials.

The first material was a material that expands when heated. It’s called puff additive, and its normal use is making puffy silkscreen prints on garments. Shot with macro extension tubes and incrementally hit with a heat gun per frame, it creates bubbles and warps. Because its puffed-up structure is riddled with air gaps, red food coloring was dripped into it after it was heat treated.

The second component, shot live and with time lapse, is heat-sensitive pigment mixed with rubber latex (which I hit upon entirely as an accident). This material is white when heated, and turns red when it cools. While the heat gun was handy, it was sensitive enough to blanche by breathing on it.

All materials were applied to wax paper, mounted on white foamcore board only 6″ wide and 12″ long, and photographed.

What Comes Next

Unlike other releases in this series, I will never make music on this instrument again, because it no longer exists. It’s been torn apart, parts sold (Todd Barton now owns that Benjolin, oddly enough), and reconfigured entirely (and in one case, in ill health from a blown capacitor). However, parts of this instrument have migrated into my primary synth setup, so you may hear familiar timbres creeping in down the road.

It’s been a fun year releasing the first three Études recordings, but it’s time for a change. Releases outside of this series have been for a while, and it’s time to attend to them. When Études continues, it will restart with a fourth volume that does not feature synthesizers at all.

Stay tuned. It’s going to get weird.