Instrument Design Journey: Natural Gate, Part 3 - In the Woods

Shortly after brewing up the new envelope circuit, we tested the design against our favourite LPGs.  We had our beta tester over for some additional perspective (our beta tester is especially fond of LPGs and had similar issues with them as I did when starting this project).  All was going very well... but after we got the perfect 'vactrol response,' another moment of clarity hit:

“Why am I trying to recreate a vactrol envelope?!”  

I mean, I liked how they sounded… but the reality is that the fact a vactrol ‘sounded good’ was somewhat accidental or indirect.   Their intended application, I mean, wasn’t to make LPGs and whatnot. You can read about their history here.  A designer of musical instruments and one with a musical brain didn’t create the vactrol curve.  It was the isolation and linearity of the resistive element that was appealing to engineers. The curve itself comes from the way the light and the particular sensor responded to each other.  It just happened to sound kinda nice when someone started putting them in these circuits and so people used them. And the fact that they are extremely simple to use means they were a go-to device for designers and especially so for those starting out in circuit design.  But I no longer had the restriction of having to use a vactrol.  And so I could make whatever curve I wanted!  Some form of nerd freedom.

And so the relentless yet innocent childhood question of ‘why?!’ started to be a part of my vocabulary again.  I remembered why I even wanted this device and the reason was clear - I wanted natural sounds. Then I thought about the kind of natural sounds I wanted to hear...  They were staring at me through the window and they called me to come see them as intimately as I wanted. I quickly gathered up a bunch of striking objects and ran into my woods.  I starting hitting all sorts of things. Things that were hollow, hard, and rang out, things that were soft, damped, even moist. This was fun! And I was listening. I was creating context.

I recorded them then spent a little time analysing the envelopes and transients of my favorites.  I figured out what kinds of shapes I needed and wanted to hear in music. The problem was simple now - just make those curves!  

I made a fairly elaborate (and finicky) calibration system for all of the shapes to be made.  I think it was something like 10x trimmers per channel. After several weeks of testing and tweaking, we had our ‘golden envelopes.'

Stay tuned for Part 4...

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