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The Exalted Birds

2012 December 5
by honcho



The Exalted Birds was the first large-scale electronium that I built. it was more ‘conceived’ than its two more-improvised predecessors. It required more planning because it is very functionally dense. There is a lot under the hood in the ‘Birds’.

The concept of the Exalted Birds is heresy. Heresy implies a deviation from an orthodoxy. Without an orthodoxy there can be no heresy. The “Birds” concept occurred to me at a time when I was still active on the internet. I participated in some of the early forums for analog synthesizer enthusiasts. At that point I was excited because the extreme speed and bandwidth of the internet caused interest and information in analog synths to spread like wildfire. I am much more cynical now, but at the time I made a point of answering every question that was addressed to me, no matter how fundamental. But within a period of about four years I withdrew entirely from all but private communication for two reasons.

One,  I am appalled at the bad manners and anti-literacy of  the great majority of  the  community. They started bad, and in my opinion, have become progressively worse. I am happy to be a prude if that’s what it takes to avoid the kind of ‘discourse’ I saw.

But the main reason I withdrew is that analog technology is highly sophisticated technology. I naively assumed that people with deep knowledge of the technology would have similarly sophisticated knowledge of art, of at least of knowledge itself.

That was just plain silly of me.

So, you may well ask… Doc? Are these colorful photos posted here to trick you, the patient reader, into listening to me kvetch incessantly about philosophical  pearls and swine?

I have a point; I promise! …one that relates to these photos.

As I was shaking the dust of the synth forums from my feet. I noted that I had a bit more time(!) and I reflected on the fact that I felt tremedously disappointed; very much as I did when I departed from the seminary and went apostate. One of the  eerie similarities between the two situations was the notion that there were paradigms of circuit design:  panel connectors, form-factors, even music,  that were ‘proper’,  and thus, it was accepted with little dissent that other paradigms were less proper.  For the record, I find that notion deliberately false and utterly intellectually bankrupt. What made it worse for me is that many of the proponents of these orthodoxies clothed their travesties in self-referential claims of objectivity or worse in academic or professional credentials. In the interest of paradox, I’ll flout some credentials of my own. I’ve studied phenomenology and ethics with some of the best; enough to know that the number of  things in the universe that authentically merit the term ‘fact’  can be counted on a sparrow’s toes and none of those things come anywhere near the fields of technology or aesthetics.

People were being ostracized and insulted because they held views that contradicted those of ‘experts’. This had a familiar ring for me. It’s dogma, plain and simple. A transistor-ladder filter design sounds superior to a multimode op-amp  design because better musicians or engineers all think so. The creation of intricate music that conforms to the intervals of  the equal-tempered scale requires superior talent to that needed to create  music without those attributes…

…It is mere dogma; arbitrary, and utterly subjective.

Lip service was paid to the principle of ‘This is just my opinion, of course’ but I am more concerned with actions that words, and the actions I witnessed confirmed that most of this claptrap was treated as far more than mere opinion and active campaigns were waged that were no different than the persecution of religious heretics by cliques of proudly ignorant zealots over arbitrary matters of belief.

So I decided to make an electronium that employed every maligned, outcast,  technology that I’d heard disparaged. I wanted an instrument composed entirely of heresies!

It begins with the name. “Exalted Birds” is a reference to the supposed satanic verses. I find the notion that some people believe that they can reconcile invoking the murder of a man because of something he wrote, to be beneath contempt, and a good reminder that there is nothing more dangerous than confident fools and the people they fool.

So much for gods, next I decided to take a swipe at nations.

I used labels in Farsi. I applied them to the cheerful red white and blue steel cabinet of an old Eico TV-repair device.


This cabinet expressed the guileless optimism of 50’s America. The Farsi labels are intended to ‘besmirch’ it’s cheerful, apple-pie purity. The sophistication and tolerance of the Persian culture predates any current religious tomfoolery. Persian erudition is legendary but just accessing a Farsi font on the internet draws the attention of our security bureaus. The notion that a language with an intellectual heritage that extends more than 15-times the entire  history of our fledgling nation,  is somehow seditious, makes a rich irony for me.

Under the hood the heresies become more geek-fodder.

It starts innocently enough: 3 VCO’s , 2 VCFs, A waveshaper , and 8 control voltage sources.

But it gets mighty tangled from there:

Exhibit A


The oscillators are based on components that experts declared were unusable for musical instruments.

But nothing gets the analog synth bigots on the torchlit march like filters!

One of the filters is based on the EDP  Wasp filter which ‘misuses’ a CMOS logic chip at it’s core. It’s deliciously irritable. The other filter is an op-amp-based  filter that’s connected in a way that the experts told me is ‘wrong’.

(oh well…. oops!)

VCO 1 (the ‘warbling’ oscillator) is based on a component that was designed with features to suit old -fashioned audio-tone modems (FSK to all you old-timers out there) I exploited this to have the oscillator always wavering in complex patterns of duration and interval between two pitches.

The ‘Slingshot’ controller bears some explanation too.  The sling shot is an infrared ‘electric eye’ suspended between the tines of the ‘fork’. Crossing the beam generates a trigger that is used by itself and to trigger control voltage events like a sample hold, and a gadget that toggles the direction of a ramp function from upward to downward motion every time the trigger occurs.

As evidenced by exhibit A (so named because I am certain that it will be used in my sanity hearing) The entire instrument is densely interconnected. It is difficult to change a control setting without affecting a bunch of other parameters. That is by design. I sent it home with my good friend Dr. Bruce McLaughlin. Bruce is a consummate musician and his comment was,  ‘I think it was playing me as much as I was playing it.”  To me that is: Mission Accomplished!


taking stock-

We have a diabolically interdependent system of  audio and control devices, using mostly identical silver knobs, and labelled in Farsi….

I’m not afraid of complexity but I’m not so crazy that I didn’t write it down!

(see below)

Because of the density of the panel I used a lot of pull-switch pots . In these cases the upper term refers to the In-position connection, and the lower term to the Out-position.


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