The Music of Stranger Things and "Universal Event Generators"

Hello and welcome back to Spoken Word with Electronics. This week, we discuss 'The Upside Down' theme from Stranger Things, and how it was created — including a possible patch sheet & equipment list for trying the theme yourself at home. This is to highlight a beloved electronics module titled "The Universal Event Generator". Co-created about 10-15 years ago by Tony Karavidas of Encore Electronics and his colleague Dave Peck, the UEG is an unpredictable idea-rich sequencer and waveform generator that can control other synthesizers in very unique ways. More on its relationship to Stranger Things after the jump. First, here's audio for this week's episode, in which a UEG is used alongside the blazing sound of insect-screaming heat, here in Austin TX:

SWWE #73: Oscillating Bugs and Universal Event Generators

Show Notes

    First, to discuss the role of the UEG, enjoy this synth-packed visit with Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein. The composers of Stranger Things are also one half of the four person band SURVIVE. I doubt Stranger Things would have been a success, or even worked, without their intelligent narrative music. Mr Stein has a great room of equipment, and at 7:10 of the video, he discusses the 'Monster' theme for "The Upside Down":

    Mr Stein is pointing at a wooden cabinet of MOTM modules, directly at a pair of two installed Universal Event Generators.

    Delightfully, the camera-person for this segment zooms in when Mr Stein points to his UEG and discusses the theme for The Upside Down. Stein indicates the dial settings have not changed. The beauty of Moog-sized modules is they are without any menus. You can read their settings directly on the panel. So, if you pause at 8:36 you'll see the exact settings on the UEG. To my best approximation – I've recreated the settings here:

    Let's discuss these settings:

  1. A Universal Event Generator is a true classic of the Modular Revival era. It is both simple and complex. It is a sequencer with varying lengths of four to eight notes, none of the notes being quantized. It can also function as a gate-triggered eight stage envelope. And in its kookiest, it allows you to dial (via a knob for time and a knob for level) the shape of a looping eight-segment waveform. Also uncommon, the module allows the ability to switch back and forth from three very differently shaped gates: A square wave, a triangle, and a peculiar peaking ramp. This means the sequence can be pulsing (square), gliding (triangle), or sort of wonderfully glued to each segment in a syrupy pinched way (the ramp). Everything is immediately switchable and changeable while you work with it. It is, in its easiest description: An idea generator.

  2. A link to the manual, which pictorially describes many of its features.

    Please also refer to this thread on the ModWiggler Synthesizer forum. It contains a few videos of the UEG – but most importantly scroll to a post from Dave Peck at Nov 17, 2014 6:40 pm where he describes his roll on the module along with some other very useful tips on how to use one.

  3. Returning to the embedded video above. At 7:33, Mr Stein explains that the tuning on a UEG is extremely finicky. This is true. Since using that one UEG module to compose The Upside Down theme, Stein states he has not altered the module's settings. (Perhaps a fresh Monster Theme would be needed for a future holiday episode where Chewbacca and the Monster play a saxophone, as an example, with fresh theme needed, so don't touch that dial – but seriously, many who use a UEG can totally relate)
  4. To enforce such a restriction, a piece of "Red Dot" is now adhered onto the module. This is so that Mr Stein knows not touch the sequencer. Mr Dixon states this red-dotted frozen UEG is a source of shared sadness, as the UEG, when un-dotted and fully tunable is so lovely. Perhaps this why they now have two UEG! (One to play, one to stay) Such is the state of mind with modular patching where you can not save a preset! It's also the ephemeral beauty of modular electronics. An adjustment of dials can be fleeting. Never to be returned if changed.

    We include a free red dot for your UEG at home

  6. This is because the UEG is a microtonal sequencer. There can be hundreds of different notes in between the space of one normal semitone. So, with only a dial and no digital display, once you've created a great sequence, how do you retain it or repeat it later? Your best bet might be to get a CV recorder to retain the note voltage for that one needed sequence. The other option, as discussed in the video: You can simply never use the module again unless it is to play The Upside Down theme. And for that you place a red dot on it and voila!
  7. This also means The Upside Down theme is unique in terms of its composition. So for fun, a little audio archeology, I'm curious: So what are those frozen settings?

  1. First, the left half of the panel was likely not used at all in the theme itself. But I'll explain it: That part of the panel is TIME. Each of those dials are for the time in between each separate note. One great thing about a UEG is you can make the time between notes vary in length. You'll find this also in classic sequencers like the Moog 960, but with the UEG is it extreme: One note can be a microsecond and the following note can last up to close to a minute! (60 Hz to 50 seconds, precisely) So with that explained, think of the Upside Down theme. What do you think of these time settings?

    These are complicated times.

    If this is The Upside Down theme, it would sound erratic. The note lengths are all over the place. The first note looks like it lasts twenty seconds! with a bunch of very fast notes and then a very slow final eighth note that's close to a full droning minute. Maybe if this was a European film that would work, but this is Spielberg-ian stuff. I'm going to guess the TIME dials were not used in The Upside Down sequence and used an external GATE clock. (More on that in a minute.) However, they could also easily switch back and forth to this TIME setting by disabling the GATE input, which would allow The Upside Down theme to drift slowly around, kind of in a dreamy way. Add some reverb and each note would pop irregularly in the air. Say, Eleven had too many Eggo-blended Shirley Temples and faded away to nosebleed-ville while she dismantles a Shark in her head. If activated, this would retain the notes but play them in wildly distended time.

    Oh, one cool thing – Do you see the small row of numbers above the dials, numbered 1,2,3,4,5,6,7, and 8 ? It's clearer in the large image above of the panel. Those are LED lights. They not only illuminate when a note is active (and for how long) but they also change intensity for how much level they are sending out, from bright to a high note and low to a low note. It's a small feature but allows complete visual understanding of where the sequencer is – which is useful because this is a bit of a random generator that can easily confuse you.

    So, returning to those wacky time settings. They probably used an external clock. You'd input that into GATE:

    The four jacks: GATE (input) TCV (input) OUT (output) TRIG (output)

    The TCV setting is for users familiar with the module, but boy is it cool. You can feed fluxuating voltage into that input and it will unpredictably lengthen each stage by up to 8 seconds, or less, then more, etc. It doesn't need to be in sync, either, so it can affect different note lengths every time as the sequence runs. Let's ignore that, but wow!

  2. For making a steady pulse like The Upside Down theme, you want to control things, which means putting a pulse into the GATE input. You can bypass the TIME setting by feeding a steady voltage pulse into the GATE input. I'm fairly certain that Dixon and Stein did this, which is the jack marked GATE on the bottom (it's obscured but right next to TCV). But if you listen to the theme in the show it's a regular steady beat. They likely used a synced clock, which can just be a pulsing LFO. With enough amplification, you can even do this with sound (Korg has a pretty good free app that works often) Now the next section LEVEL, however, very plausibly are the notes (or filter twangs) used in the theme itself. Let's focus on that:

    Is this The Upside Down theme?

  3. Above shows the LEVEL settings on the UEG on Mr Stein's wall. I played this sequence into a filter and a pitch and it sounded very close. I'll explain how to do that in a moment. But first, the settings show a few switch settings. Refer to the manul linked above: ONE SHOT is selected, and the loop is set to begin on the second dial and end on the eighth. Triangle is set as the waveform. If you hum The Upside Down sequence in your head you'll see the up and down (get it?) of pitches in the settings for dials two through eight. If you wanted to use those TIME settings, a patch cable from the TRIG output will send a pulse on the eighth sequence out, which will reiniate the sequence perpetually if you input that into the GATE input, and Bob's Your Uncle. Cool!
  4. Now, the question of how to get this sequence into your synthesizers. Unlike most sequencers, the UEG does not provide a gate output for each note. So if you play this sequence into a synthesizer you need to also trigger the envelopes with a gate. Otherwise it will be a drone with pitch variation. It won't be the cool plucking sound you get from that Stranger Things scene

    Analog Steps:

  1. You'll first want to take the OUT pulse from the UEG into a multiple. You'll be sending one to an envelope generator, and then two pulses to the pitch and filter of a synth. As you'd want to preserve the microtonal settings, I'd also suggest an active attenuator on both inputs to evenly measure and level out the UEG output into the pitch and filter inputs. Vary how much you send into the pitch and filter with the attenuator while playing for add a little variety and animation while looping.
  2. You'll be using the Envelope Generator to create a Gate every time a pulse is sent from the UEG. Basically, just input one of the three MULT outputs into the Instrument Interface and amplify it with attenuation on the threshold until you see an even pulse on the Instrument Interface's GATE or TRIG output. Good! Now you can send that pulse into the keyboard input of your synth. This will trigger the envelopes of the synth every time a note is played.
  3. You will want a very snappy envelope to get the sounds of The Upside Down. If you want to stay in Moog Format, you might be great with the Frequency Central System X ADSR, which is a clone of the Roland 100m ADSR – though they claim "but snappier!" – See if this sounds like the envelope pluck of The Upside Down to you?

    It would need some work to slow down and lower the pitch, along with making the attack of the envelope even tighter (along with more of a sustain tail) but this isn't a bad start to going into the Stranger Things forest. My guess as to what synth they used on the show is the Oberheim Two Voice.

  4. The more you learn about modular synthesis you'll see these instructions are fairly simple. It's very fun to treat a patch like this as a starting off point, too, and to mangle up things. Enjoy the discovery!
  5. Regrettably, the Universal Event Generator is no longer produced on a mass scale, but they show up from time to time used or for trade. It was also manufactured in a very cool looking Eurorack format with matching features.
  6. This week we use the UEG on the show to sing along with insects in the heat:

    SWWE #73: Oscillating Bugs and Universal Event Generators

    Ethan Persoff is a sound designer based in Austin Texas. You can subscribe to Spoken Word with Electronics via Bandcamp and most podcast services.