Instrument Design Journey: Natural Gate, Part 1 - Introduction

This is the first post in a new series which documents the journeys we take in making an instrument.  We feel it might be nice to have the stories behind something you may use in your own creative ways. And maybe for other designers or hobbyists, too; to see some of the ways others like to work.

The real moment which realised what we see as the novelty of Natural Gate came down to an accidental ‘blip’ where I was lite.  Without this moment, I would have still been scrambling at the drawing board and may have even given up on the project altogether, as with countless other projects in my life.

At the time, I didn’t know what ‘lite’ meant nor was it formulated into a whole sort of philosophy we try to operate by today and spend considerable time refining.  But to understand the moment it ‘clicked,’ we first start with my situation beforehand.

I was working a normal, decent-paying job with benefits and all of that nice stuff.  I also did some consulting work on the side. It was stable and secure… but at the same time somewhat unsatisfying.  I started designing my version of a LPG during this time. I had experimented with the typical LPG circuits, all of which used vactrols.  I realised after a while that it was the vactrol itself that was limiting what could be had.  They were also kind of poor devices - they didn’t 'close' all the way in these circuits, had crazy drift issues, and they really needed to be hand selected. Couple this with their cost and the nasty materials used to make them - they were just something I didn’t want to work with let alone use in anything I made. I even remember my guitar amp days - old Mesa Boogie amplifiers that used them for channel switching… what a mess.  For channel switching in my amplifiers, I would just use some JFETS or any of other number of better engineered solutions.  So why vactrols?! Exactly!  I was never one for tradition and so it was an easy move to try something new.

Tradition!  We do not need so much tradition here, my friends!

And so I started looking at ways to bypass the need to use these devices.  At the time, I was in the depths of how to emulate this device. I didn’t have any strong musical context, nor I hadn’t really asked why I was trying to emulate it in the first place - it was just a matter of replacing it.  And so I tried some analogue methods to create the curves of a vactrol.

Early on, I knew I needed and wanted adjustable decay.  But these first circuits were finicky, didn’t sound quite right, and were always a compromise between long and short decays.  I was stumped and couldn’t think of a better analogue solution. So I then decided to try the digital approach and brute-force it.  After some initial testing we realised that we needed very high resolution and speed to get the detail we needed at the snappy end of the spectrum.  We wrote some software, played with some DACs n Bessel filters, and had some basic thing going. I was again left torn; it didn’t seem to fit the purpose of the device nor was it an elegant solution to me.  So it sat. I was a bit frustrated - yet another design stuck on the bench. It made it even harder to come up with a decent solution. The more I tried, the less I could think clearly. I was grumpy and unpleasant; something I’ve been prone to my whole life and still struggle with today, on occasion.

At the same time, I was spending my entire day doing something that I didn’t really want to be doing any more.  I was bored and stale. I wasn’t being challenged and yet I had no energy to take on my own challenges. I couldn’t think clearly.  And so at some point, you get fed up enough (if you are paying at least some attention) that you decide to do something drastic. And that was to resign.  I’d talked about quitting for a long time but the comforts seemed to keep that thought far in the background. But this time was different and I was ready. I had another path and I was ready to take the plunge.  I sent in my resignation letter and that was that. Many people thought I was crazy or there was something wrong with me for leaving. This time, however, I decided not to listen and carried through with my plan.  And so my new journey had begun! Now I could finally devote *all* of my time and energy into something instead of having to piece it together here and there. It was a very unsure time and I would be lying if I said I wasn’t afraid of the unknowns ahead.  But the decision was made and it was time to GO.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this journey!

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