The latest Giorgio Sancristoforo creation is an instrument inspired by the self-generating electronic circuits of Louis and Bebe Barron. Voyage to a Forbidden Planet on your computer.

Do you like warbly, analog-style freakout frequency modulation, and ring modulation? Do you like a lot of it? Do you like to saturate it into fuzzy overdrives and then run it through deep-space delays? That’s what’s in store in the world of Creature from the ID. Giorgio has been on a tear of simulated vintage studios – not just going back to the big pop synths but setting the time machine dials to the primordial roots of electronic music — deep in experimental labs in electronic music’s prehistory.

My mess-around:

Bebe and Louis Barron’s 1956 score for Forbidden Planet was the breakthrough moment for all-electronic feature-length films. (For shorts, I think the Soviet optical synthesis experiments predate anything else, but feature-length is another matter.) The couple got a tape recorder first as a wedding gift, and influenced by cybernetics, they built experimental circuits like small organisms, breeding sounds and then sorting through them in piles of tapes. With some recording, re-recording, looping, and reversing, they cultivated scores as much as composed them.

As Barry Schrader told Synthtopia on the occasion of Bebe’s death in 2008:

They built their own circuits, which they viewed as cybernetic organisms, having been influenced by Norbert Weiner’s work on cybernetics (Cybernetics: Or, Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine).

The circuits, built with vacuum tubes, would exhibit characteristic qualities of pitch, timbre, and rhythm, and had a sort of life cycle from their beginnings until they burned out. The Barrons recorded the sounds from the amplification of these circuits and this formed the basis of their working library.

They also employed tape manipulation techniques as part of their compositional procedures. The sound qualities of these various amplified tube circuits and the tape manipulations that they underwent formed the musical language that the Barrons created in their studio. Unlike some of the work being done elsewhere, the Barrons’ music reveals long phrases, often stated in tape-delayed rhythms, with the stark finesse of the tube circuit timbres. They created a style that was uniquely their own yet married to the technology they were using.

What Giorgio has done is as far as I know unprecedented – he’s taken that jumble of circuits used by the Barrons and imagined a hardware instrument that embodies them. It’s as though we enter an alternate timeline where the Barrons’ compositional style becomes the dominant paradigm instead of the Minimoog keyboard.

User interface for Creature From the ID, featuring dials, VU meters, and a hexagonal organization with oscillators on the two sides and mixing and send controls at the center.

There are two identical sound generators, each with bass frequency, waveform (sine or sawtooth), frequency modulation and cross-feedback FM (between the two generators), and instability speed and mod indices, plus volume and pan. Those “circuit instability” settings give this instrument a flavor unlike anything else. These feed into the clock signal and produce irregularities in timing, making rhythms bubble like magma. Turn the dials even a hair, and creatures will wobble and gyrate through frequencies with all the characteristic alien creepiness of your favorite mid-century sci-fi films. All of this is controllable and even MIDI-assignable. You can even create drones – zero out the filters, ID, and mod, and crank up the clock.

The other major design innovation here is forcing the interface to use the signal processing methods of the time. You won’t get any conventional envelope, and the highpass and lowpass filters are not there to use with timbre. Instead, you use the filters to dial in the equivalent of attack and release envelopes – via ring modulation for amplitude. That can give you everything from continuous, morphing tones to quick pops and drops. (There’s a copious explanation of all of this in the manual, though messing around with the knobs is also a valid way to understand it.)

Pulling all of this together, you have mixing and delay controls (with time and feedback). And this being a Giorgio concoction, there is a tape recorder function that simulates the reel-to-reel recorder you’d have in a vintage studio. The tape is set to a default length of 120 seconds, but you can record to longer sets or shorten it to make little tape loops.

Tape recorder interface showing visual representation of a reel-to-reel with transport controls, plus parameters for setting recording and length and VU and waveform visualization.

None other than legendary composer and sound artist Todd Barton has contributed a sound bank as part of the package. The Buchla, Serge, and Hordijk expert exhibits a masterful approach to the instrument here. You can marvel at those sounds on their own or use them to motivate you to explore more deeply.

My example is experimental and will sound like that retro source material, but there’s nothing to say you can’t use loops to produce rhythmic material or even space out your next club track. But whether or not you choose to share the results, I think this one is worth the investment even as a kind of album to enjoy. Read through the detailed manual which goes into some of the history, mess with some knobs, and enjoy.

Oh, and there’s a ROBOT button that instantaneously randomizes the results. There are just so many weird and wonderful sounds in there that sometimes I was happiest with the randomization option.

A macOS version is available now (as tested), with Windows coming soon.

It’s funny listening to that soundtrack again because somehow, as I get further in years from the soundtrack, it sounds fresher and more futuristic than when I first heard it. I think that’s not accidental; I think as we better attune our ears to synth sounds, we start to hear the compositional elements more clearly We begin to really hear these circuits and tapes as instruments, perhaps when even the original creators of the score were motivated by intuition.

Find the software – and more sounds:

Here with some of Giorgio’s pulp AI imaginings: