The Electric Phoenix Vocal Synthesizer

EMAS [Electro-Acoustic Music Association of Great Britain] Newsletter, Vol 3 No.2B, July 1981

As live electronics becomes a norm rather than a novelty, musicians are beginning to explore the possibilities of compact, versatile treatment devices which they can operate themselves. The advantage is obvious: a single performer can integrate acoustic sound and electronic processing with a subtlety and precision which is all but impossible if the latter is delegated to the mixer, especially if there are other sound sources to be processed as well. It's the old game of bowing a fiddle while someone else stops the strings.

Singers (with the exception of expansive tenors) are particularly fortunate in that they have both hands available for manipulation. And so it was inevitable that Electric Phoenix, a mixed quartet plus a sound projectionist, should come up with a means of utilizing all ten hands at once.

The solution was four small synthesizers, drawing on a single power supply and mounted within easy reach on the singers' mike stands. They were designed and built by Ian Macintosh, who had already equipped several notable oneman bands, including Barry Guy. Several of their functions were specified in the first instance by Henry Pousseur, who wrote his "Tales and Songs from the Bible of Hell" around them and later by Rolf Gehlhaar, who went so far as to build four more boxes himself and explore their capabilities for several months before writing "Worldline", which ideally includes no direct acoustic sound whatever.

The boxes are 8" by 6" in size and include a mike preamp with a balanced XLR input; the output is unbalanced high level, high impedence. The sloping control panel on top of the box is divided into four sections, the first three of which control the boxes' three treatment devices: a ring modulator, a resonating bandpass filter, and a digital delay. The fourth section contains an output level control, a power switch, and a mike/line switch (so that an external sound source such as an electronic instrument can be inserted for treatment).

The ring modulator includes an internal sine tone which is continuously variable from subsonic to about 10K. Control is by means of a fader plus a switch for selecting upper or lower range. Another switch bypasses the ring mod and sends the sine tone directly to output. There is, deliberately, a certain amount of breakthrough (internally controllable) to produce an additional sound source, which can be further controlled by the filter.

The bandpass filter has two controls, one a fader which selects the frequency to be passed, the other a "resonance" pot which recirculates the selected frequency up to the point of feedback.

The digital delay also has two controls, both faders, one of which controls the delay time and the other the degree of resonance of the selected delay. Since this is a treatment device, the delay is deliberately crude and "electronic": subtle reverberation, particularly in a resonant hall, is virtually inaudible.

Each device also has a rotating balance control, located in its section of the panel, which varies the output from untreated to fully treated. All three can be interconnected in any order by miniature patch cords and a patch bay extending along the bottom edge of the panel; for instance, the digital delay can either precede or follow the ring modulator. A threeway multiple allows the sine tone to be added to the mike rather than modulated with it, or the tone can be swept through the digital delay and added to the voice, etc. Thus the treatments are in function, fully modular. (In the original boxes, patching was by means of a matrix board whose logic, under the pressure of live performance, was elusive. Patch cords, which are a visible diagram of the signal path, have proved more satisfactory.

It will be apparent by now that the range of treatment is fairly limited. But a great deal of variety is possible with extended vocal techniques, especially with four performers. More complex treatment can of course be added by the sound projectionist.

Ian Macintosh has since built a much more complex vocal synthesizer for John Potter's solo performances, and he also has a revolutionary minicomputercontrolled device in the pipeline which promises to be very exciting. But the Phoenix boxes provide a lot of versatility in a very small package. Like any musical instrument, their limitations can be stretched by skilful and imaginative manipulation.

John Whiting