How much can you do with a suitcase full of soundmakers? Quite a lot, as it happens.

The 20th Century gave sound two great achievements. One was the successful modeling of filtering in digital software form. The other was the production of the electronic filter, first in quartz crystal form. Today, all of those advancements are available in cheap, often battery-powered devices that fit in the palm of your hand. Spurred by yesterday’s discussion of sonic mobility and battery power, Sasa Rasa points us to the recent work of Chris Carter (of Throbbing Gristle and Chris & Cosey fame).

Chris has built out a set he calls “Chris Carter’s Chemistry Lessons,” featuring a suitcase rig of noisemaking gadgets. Among other devices, this includes a new experimental, DIY noisemaker kit that came out of a collaboration with Dirty Electronics / John Richards. The setup, and accompanying performance, were recently the featured item at an event at Amsterdam’s STEIM, a hub for experimental sound. The contents comprise a veritable guide to what’s useful in mobile music making, without resorting to mobile phones or similar devices, and without, even, any use of MIDI.

Below, one of the setups, combining specialized and custom electronics with some familiar sound objects.

A Bugbrand Workshop Osc Machine and Chris’ creation with John Richards grace a box of toys. (CC-BY-NC) Chris Carter.

He describes a sample set using the rig on his blog, proudly entitling it no MIDI no keyboards:

I generated some rhythms using two [KORG] Kaossilators – going through two mini KPs, and manipulated some bass loops with a Korg KP3 pad. I had a Chimera BC16 synth (the LFO and the ADSR) voltage controlling a BC9 synth and two Eventide stompboxes. I synced and beat matched on the fly using ‘tap-tempo’ buttons on the Korgs and Eventides.

Equipment shown:
Two Kaossilators, two mini Kaoss pads, a KP3 Kaoss pad, a Tom Bugs WOM synth, Chimera BC8, BC9 and BC16 synths, two Zoom PFX-9003 effects, an Eventide Modfactor, an Eventide Timefactor, a Dirty-Carter E.S.G.I synth, a portable Edirol mixer and a Zoom H2 for recording.
No MIDI, keyboards, laptops or desktop computers were used.

Here’s that set recorded to his Zoom H2 mobile recorder:

no MIDI no keyboards by chris_carter

Is there an advantage to working this way as opposed to assembling a similar arsenal of tools in a computer? Not necessarily. But maybe that’s part of the point: whether you assemble a set of hardware sound boxes, some custom circuits and DSP processing in hardware, a Pd or Max patch on a computer, or a set of effects, you’re engaging in what is fundamentally the same process. The fact that you have all of these choices means there’s really no excuse for not finding some set of tools with which you feel comfortable, and with which you can push the envelope of your own performance style.

Not only that, but even the most die-hard computer lover is likely to find something here – the mobile recorder, one or two of the effects boxes – that would nicely complement their rig.

And what I like about Chris’ examples is that, within the “experimental” aesthetic paradigm he’s set out, there are rich compositional and sonic ideas, modeled in the flow of signal betwixt his noise gadgetry.

Lots of great ideas for useful hardware came up in comments on the battery-powered story, so watch for a further compilation.

  • Art

    Thanks Peter. Chris Carter works have always been very inspiring for me. Nice to see him on CDM. Hi's got a Vimeo channel to.

  • cubestar

    Modular synths just seem so much more patchable and modulate-able than a bunch of pedals.

    (I know that the Chimeras are baby modulars)

  • Bowman

    I love it…i strive, specifically, to not use software, keybaords or midi…I have a similar setup of Kaossilator, mini kp, kaossilator pro, stylophone, stylophone beatbox, battery powered mixer, and a ton of little toys all hooked up…even tiny battery speakers to play completely mobile

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  • Damon

    Fantastic… DYI most anyone can D. Thanks for this piece.

  • JollyRogered

    Great to see this sort of thing on Create [i]Digital[/i] Music – after all, this is what people did before Mr.Gates/Jobs put a computer on everybody's desk.
    The direct ancestor of CDM is magazines like Electronics Today International and Practical Electronics, and for those of us who couldn't afford an actual Moog or Yamaha, building kits from these publications was the only way to go.
    I recognise one of Chris' boxes – the original Gristleizer – as being a Phonosonics kit; I still have mine, and the original schematics, complete with solder burns! I must dig it out and see if it still works…

  • Simon

    @Damon DYI? Do Yourself In?

  • Random Chance

    This strikes me as the right setup for someone like Chris Carter. Me, I would sorely miss a keyboard or two. But if his rig should just happen to fall off a truck when I walk by I would seriously consider lugging it away, keeping what I can use for myself and giving the rest to others. Then meet with those people and play some fucking ugly noise soundtrack for the life of people in this day and age paying homage to the great ones like Throbbing Gristle. ;-D

  • Asterion


    Sometimes I feel that visual feedback from the computer really distracts us from what's most important – the sound!

  • Ken

    oh man, I used to have so much fun with a fully loaded Pedaltrain Pro running beats off of my iphone and ipod (btbx, and idrum) through my pedal collection! Gives a lot of satisfaction, and you can lose hours in that world!

  • @JollyRogered: and, of course, now all those lines are blurred. You can build a kit with an AVR brain at the center and program it like computer software. But that still gets us back to the earlier DIY ethos – and programming, minus GUIs, is far less complex, back even to the simpler syntax once commonplace with things like BASIC when programming wasn't considered a "special" use case.

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  • Never seen a machine like this in my lifetime. Going to check this in google for more info..thank 🙂

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  • Random Chance

    @Peter Kirn: You could always build little computers with microcrontollers and before the advent of microcontrollers people built things using microporcessors and external memory, basic serial or parallel I/O devices, etc. There is pretty much a continuity about what you call the "earlier DIY ethos". It's just that for some odd reason the electronic music community at large seems to have caught on only fairly recently and many people won't even know a PIC from an AVR (much less that the AVR is what makes all those Arduino thingies tick) except for the electronics DIY crowd. Considering that it's so easy to just take an AVR, maybe an external quartz as timing reference and some few other odd components depending on what you want to build I cannot really understand why people would be talking all about Arduino and stuff. The early DIY ethos is probably more about making do with what you can build yourself (i.e. not a prefab PCB with components already soldered in and everything tested plus a fancy GUI with a C compiler and a comprehensive set of tested and documented library routines). Microcontroller DIY has almost nothing to do with the days when people were glad that they could purchase a book which explained to them how to write a simple BASIC interpreter for a specific microprocessor (including code listings in HEX). Those days are all but gone and I think we should not want them back.

  • @Random Chance: Yes, fair enough. But you have to admit, in terms of what would be accessible to musicians, prior to the Basic STAMP-style products, there were more DIY stompoxes and mixers than things with microcontrollers in them. And it is, at least, easier and cheaper to do this stuff now than ever before. (I'm not necessarily talking about Arduino, either; the whole toolchain is better.)

    I do agree that there's some continuity, though.

  • Random Chance

    @Peter Kirn: Arduino was just an example. It's almost as annoying as Monomes and iPhones. 😉

    My point exactly: The toolchain and support is pretty nifty. I remember a few years ago when I had to build a package for the AVR toolchain on GNU/Linux because I was the only one in the group that knew his way around such matters like getting all tools together, setting up Makefiles, and testing things such that you got a nice one-click solution. At the same time the Windows guys already had (although paid for) IDEs with better libraries.

    The next big thing would be FPGAs and associated tools become really usable. At this point even experts who make a living working with the manufacturer's tools run into odd bugs and problems that only down and dirty debugging using expensive tools can hope to solve. Although I doubt that FPGAs have the same appeal as more general purpose devices like microcontrollers. Maybe with the right libraries and the fulfillment of the promise that you just need to start a wizard, click a button and you have your custom system on chip ready to be programmed in C, C++, Java, or whatever suits you best.
    Ideally combined with analog portions such that in the future we may see news about "Verilog source code for SSM VCF" or the like. That would be fun …

  • Kit

    Chris Carter has done a mixtape for Vessel Music here, compiling about 12 tracks that he plays when he dj's…

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  • I found a good set of new things here Guys check it out. Carter is great.