THE BUREAU: Part Three, "Assessing Others" — with a Metasonix D-2000 Vacuum Tube Drum Machine

The Bureau by Ethan Persoff - Part Three

Your supervisor would like to speak with you today at 10:53am. Good thing you have a great tasting sandwich to deal with that unreasonable feedback.

Your Lunch by Ethan Persoff

Welcome back to The Bureau, a story told to you in real-time, through comics and electronic music. Each comics panel has a corresponding music track. If you press play on this week's soundtrack at 10:53am, you'll find music to follow your experience through 11:39am. Previous installments had you clocking in at 8:55am, and receiving an announcement at 10:03am.

Here's this week's playlist:

The music for this week is largely built on Metasonix modules, particularly the D-2000 drum machine. Additional moments are brought to you by their amazing RK5 low-pass gate, S2000 ribbon synthesizer, and other unique sound devices.

Metasonix modules used in The Bureau

A collection of installed Metasonix modules found near the announcer's desk, here at The Bureau, in our Thyratron Department of Tubing.

Metasonix, or Eric Barbour, is my favorite electronics designer. Presently, electronic music design is enjoying what many consider a Golden Age. Modern makers are innovating on previous generations' work, and many of the classic models are now even found in exact design clones.

This electronics revival is not just remakes of old designs, too. With digital possibilities that have never existed before, the focus is on Musique Concrète by DESIGN, tape manipulation as a product, and Random and Noise is embraced as much as Music – All leading to a good future for nice and aggressive experimental sound. In particular, analog design is having an amazing moment, with a focus on control voltage as a creative source, a configuration method previously marginalized to near extinction when largely replaced by midi through the 1980s-2000s.

All of this is to say that the options in electronic music have never been better, more creative, abundant, and more creatively competitive. When the cloud settles over this, I feel the Jack Kirby (impact wise) of this moment will be Eric Barbour of Metasonix. I also feel Barbour's work ethic is the most likable, at least in a sense that I find it familiar to my own preferences. Take for example this reference shot:

Eric Barbour's Metasonix factory. Inside this small structure a man works with vacuum tubes. Implied: Do not knock.

Metasonix makes vacuum tube based gear, with a professed goal to recreate the entire world of synthesis through 1950s methods. As a side effect of this goal, the equipment is lush, unpredictable, aggressive and very very lively.

I enjoyed this copy from metasonix's site describing their Lowpass Gate (LPGs create a kind of bongo percussion; the 'gate' is identifiable as a popping bop sound with a fizzy diffused fade out, found in a lot of west coast synthesis)

Ever wondered if someone had invented the lowpass gate before Don Buchla did in 1970, what it might have been like? Especially in the 1950s when there were no "integrated circuits" or such? No one had the nerve or the hallucinatory drugs to think such a thing up. But it would have been easy. A cathode follower using the right tube, plus two linear resistive optocouplers (in those days they existed but used incandescent lamps and responded very slowly), and a few capacitors and resistors. Simple, yet it was never done. It was a miracle they had limiters in the early days; and they weren't very "good" limiters either. Tubes constrain your choices but give good sound effects along the way.
 IF they are applied properly.

The copy continues:

Since part of our remit is to explore an electronic-music history that didn't actually happen, one inevitable product would have been a lowpass gate. Our version is a dual unit, dead simple Sallen-Key filter with just input, output and CV input for each channel. The tube used is a "high-perveance" dissimilar dual triode, the 17JK8. It was apparently intended for use as a "cascode" RF front-end amplifier in cheap consumer FM radios. It must have been moderately popular because although we've never seen an example of its actual use, it is a commonplace NOS leftover item. We found it was ideal for use directly on the +-12 volt rails in a Euro modular as the plate supply, thanks to its high perveance and low plate resistance. Each channel uses one triode and two Silonex LED-based linear optoresistors. Because of the dissimilar triodes and differences in the opto devices, the two channels will sound slightly different and won't match or track perfectly. If such a device had existed before Buchla, it would have been like that. So it has "forgiving" distortion and a very slow decay time due to the high circuit impedances. This is exactly what you would have gotten in the 1950s–if it had existed in the 1950s.

Other top innovators: There's Jim Smith in Chicago, whose Space Case TE-1 Tape Echo is a dream in a box (currently he's working on the TE-2, which you can follow development here) – There's the work of Make Noise in Asheville or Mark Verbos in Berlin, who both deserve attention for their craft and art. And let's not forget last week's focus on Vlad Kreimer, whose Lyra-8 is a profound joy and upcoming Pulsar-23 drum machine looks to be brain bashing. And in terms of sheer programming, Sandrine Sims' Reflex Liveloop is crazy as a multi-use sampler that reminds one of what Steve Wozniak might have created had he opted to make samplers instead of Apple computers in that garage.

Metsonix's Barbour is known for his antagonistic charm (or derisive unlikability), and like most geniuses, I've gathered he could care less. I adore the guy. I first found out about Metasonix years ago through the classifieds listing at the end of V. Vale's RE/Search newsletter. I believe the original phrasing as a RE/Search sponsor in the email was:

METASONIX: Since 1999, the world's only maker of vacuum-tube music synthesizers.

An email to Metasonix at that time, asking about the use of tubes in one of their F1 pedals, which I was interested in buying, was quickly replied to with a kind of brawling hostility that I found immediately charming and refreshing (I bought the pedal.)

If you begin assembling a group of Metasonix modules you quickly do realize through communication that at the core of everything, Eric is a maker who greatly loves the work he produces and wants the devices to be well cared for and operated correctly. A perusal of the many service manuals will also teach you some other colorful words. (Scroll down through the page for the manuals)

It would be difficult to refer to the best instruments in the world by their proper names, but the Ass Blaster is probably the nicest effects unit a guitarist could ever find, which he would want to pair with a Fucking Fucker amp, while his friend in the band plays his synth through a Scrotum Smasher.

A Metasonix Scrotum Smasher, Smashing a Korg's Volcas.

The lead in the band could break the foundation of the venue with a Wretch, which Sound on Sound praised with delighted wonder in 2008.

(The $3,500 dollar Wretch was shipped from the maker in a garbage bag with a "Your Music Still Sucks" label on the instructions, incidentally)

The D-1000 and D-2000 are very organic sounding drum machines.

D-1000 or D-2000? What's the difference?

The first version of the Metasonix drum machine is named the D-1000. No longer in production (and thus more desirable due to reasons) it has a sequencer built in. Note the trigger switches. The circuit, or sound, with both versions is identical. The D-1000 is fixed tuning to each drum voice.

A typically euphoric Metasonix session

The D-2000 adds one additional drum voice, and improves on an inherent hum found in many D-1000's. Delightfully, the D-2000 includes resonance control of each voice. This can be challenging, however, as the D-1000 is tuned in factory and the D-2000 is up to you. The trigger sequencer is only found in the D-1000 but can be easily replaced with other sequencing gear.

Quite a beautiful sound.

The D-2000 loses the enclosed trigger sequencer but adds an end-stage distortion output, which you can bypass. Here, its distortion options are shown in full capacity.

In the Bureau this week, there is a lot of Metasonix on display. You can hear the D-2000 as the leading percussion, or sound of bouncing rubber feet and tapping fingers, in Your Supervisor Walks In:

Listen for the rubberized popping feet and wooden dowels and pegs

The D-2000 is also used for main theme for The Bureau: Wild Hare is completely Metasonix percussion, glued together with a droning S2000, RK3 and R55. (Those are all Metasonix models)

"Wild Hare", all Metasonix equipment. Drone by an S2000, R55 and RK3 for waveshaping, percussion by D-2000.

When listening, observe the single looping percussive trigger and notice how much sound is moving underneath with its own transient percussion. That's all dissipated tone from the devices and no external reverb. With appropriate tuning, the timbre of the machine changes almost every time you strike them. The D-2000 has five drum modules sharing a single circuit board and you can get a voice to echo off one another in a really ghostly wonderful way. It's like being able to tap into the sound of a light bulb. I absolutely love working with the stuff.

Metasonix is the sound of the asshole's mouth in The Bureau, as well as the sharp knives and teeth found in "Susan's Paperwork".

A few caveats that are positives to its unique tone: 1) If you leave a Metasonix machine running and playing a tune, it will change the sound on its own (usually every 30 mins or so) as the tubes themselves chew up the electricity going through them. This is different than going out of tune; the color of the sound changes. Barbour uses tubes originally designed for televisions or other equipment, most of them NOS stock tubes from the 1950s-1960s, produced by the likes of Sylvania, GE, or RCA – and 2) When you turn Metasonix devices off thinking you can retain a patch, you'll find it sounding completely different when you return to the same setting, or simply power it back on untouched. In a world of constant savable settings (or even predictable settings) the ephemera of each moment is part of the brilliance of it. You have to tune it like a string instrument. You have to wrestle with the equipment like it's machinery. You are beguiled and charmed by it. It's unlike any other kind of instrument, but it requires practice.

Working with other beautiful sounding equipment: I was suprised to find that the best pairing in the studio for Metasonix is actually Dave Smith/Tom Oberheim's wondrously gorgeous sounding DSI OB-6. Hear the OB-6 and Metasonix together in Todd Pours the Medicine Down the Drain, which has an OB-6 arpeggio and Metasonix D-2000 drum bouncing back and forth through a Fixed Filter Bank:

"Todd Pours the Medicine", OB-6 Arpeggio and Metasonix D-2000 Drums

Have another favorite electronics maker? Mention it in the comments.

Thank you for your time at The Bureau.

Set Your Bureau Clocks, Brave Worker!
Next week: Watch for an important text message from your supervisor.
Next Installment: Wednesday November 21, 11:39am, PST.

View all Bureau installments