Electronic Chaos

How Chaos Made Electronics

Answer – by hand mostly.

The Crawling Chaos’s works in the public domain derive from two main sources – viz the crawling chaos of Jeff & Rees and the nothin’ of Paul & Holly.  Each had their own equipment and ideas…

For Jeff & Rees it’s not generally known that a great deal of The Crawling Chaos’ sound came through early experiments in electronics.  They started with a bought guitar or two, a practice amp and an inherited upright piano, but the rest of the gear was by and large home-made simply because commercial products were horrendously expensive.  Jeff had a dinky acoustic (which I still have, amazingly) and then got his red electric, from Woolies or similar I think.  After a short while he ditched the neck by measuring it, cutting a piece of thread to the exact length, and then him, me and Keith (Wear) trawled decent music shops in Newcastle surreptitiously measuring expensive guitar necks in the racks, holding them up to the eye checking for straightness, and then he bought a decent one that was a match.  It was a Ibanez neck.  Don’t ask me what model – I wasn’t that interested at the time!  I have no idea why we had to sneak around – he could’ve just asked, but I guess he didn’t want the sales hassle….

Magazines

At that time there was a boom in hobby electronics and a slew of magazines surfaced both supplying and creating this boom.  Things like:

The American Radio History website has many links to full scans of the magazines, month by month and it’s interesting to see the advertisers at the time from whom we bought bits!

This isn’t an exhaustive list……

Most have been lost but I found a few bits which I used a lot and have scanned.  These are the images.  You can now find them in their situation in ETI Circuits #2 on the American Radio History website

From memory, I think:

  • The studio & stage mixer is a low noise thing from ETI
  • Guitar and keyboard effects from PE as a guitar effects box circuit
  • VCA/VCO from PE
  • Phaser from Elektor
  • Bucket brigade flanger from Elektor
  • Various amps, small  mixers and power supplies from ETI
  • Ring modulator from PE
  • Very simple fuzz box used on bass guitar in “Mummy’s Tummy” – a tech tip in ETI!!

Most stuff was heavily customised by me (SP).

Floor Work – Bench Work

Sounds – it’s all about the sounds

For Rees especially (it’s me writing this, after all!) it was all about the sound coupled to the particular emotional aspect that a given piece of music endowed to the mind.  Jeff I’m sure had a similar mindset though at the root of it he’d always want to be Lou Reed… 😉
Thus it was that we’d find ways to copy sounds we’d discovered by other artistes and generally experiment with bits of tape, shortwave radio transmissions or plain electronic malfunctions  for something….interesting to the ears.

What We Did

I’d religiously trawl through the magazines every month – I had standing orders at the newsagents for the first two mags in particular in my list.

Some circuits we’d breadboard on the table or carpet and plug a guitar or mike in to see the effect, twiddling the potentiometers to see if anything good could be had.  Anything good was made up on proper circuit boards, some bought ready made and others made by me.  As far as I can remember Jeff bought ready made kits – I’d have a mix of ready made and others that I created, modified the circuitry and made custom circuit boards from PCB sheet, rosin (say), ferric chloride etching solution and meths…  It can be messy.

Almost everything was tested with a spider’s web of wires on the carpet to see if it was any good for us.  If it was, we’d box it up.  This went on through most of 76, 77 and a bit of 78.

Most of the designs that hadn’t been finalised I completed on my return to Stakeford from Wales at the end of 77.  I soldered away for weeks while Blyth Spartans progressed through the FA Cup up to West Ham, Gerry Rafferty’s Baker Street was top of the charts and Metro Radio played endless adverts for the new BMW 7 series.

After that it was almost job done.

During this time I wrote to Holger Czukay and had a wonderful reply which I kept on my desk in front of me as I soldered away in this melange of Baker Street, BMWs and Blyth Spartans .  He’s now dead but I’ve just read a strangely poignant obituary on the Can website:

A true European, Holger salvaged wit, humour and artistic integrity out of a childhood that should have left him traumatised: uprooted as a toddler from Danzig at the outbreak of world war two, resettled in a bombed out Berlin. He was a laughing contrarian and artistic adventurer. More than the rest of his band mates, he retained a strong sense of theatre, goofing off like a dadaist. To some extent it was his trickster’s desire to push against the grain in Can’s later development that finally caused the group to finish as an active unit.

Maybe we’re all a bit like that.

Boxes

Some stuff had individual aluminium cases made from bent cut-out sheet, others had pre-made aluminium boxes, other circuitry was bundled into larger boxes and formed a music effects box with 1/4 inch jack sockets being used to give full flexibility to the various in-outs of each module so that they could be chained in various ways.

Jeff’s box was covered in red felt (mmm nice) and mine (Rees’s) I painted black and called it “the tube”.  I still have it!  They can both be seen in the various live and studio photos.

The Toota

I (Rees) also made an electronic organ, painted it green, and called it The Toota”  I gave it the serial number R1.  I made it while I was living in Mid-Wales in 1977 and Hubert, a builder cum undertaker made the case for me.
I used this through the effects chain of “the tube”.

The toota used circuits from Maplin Electronics just after they started up.  I had a 61-key keyboard and instead of having two manuals I had two switches under each key with each switch triggering a single tone but an octave apart.  Thus pressing a “A” key would give two tones, one at 220Hz and the other at 440Hz, say.

Each tone could give an almost pure sinewave (flute) output graded in 5 push-button steps up to a fizzy sawtooth/square (strings/reeds) type tone.  I had a balance potentiometer set up to give a feed between the two octave notes.

It was polyphonic and the whole lot played through the various effects in the tube was er… interesting and quite often very hard to control and predict.  I developed a technique of playing certain key combinations to give clearer sounds since some blanket chords just put white noise through everywhere and drowned out the rest of the band….

The key notes in the toota were derived from a Maplin board that had a high frequency oscillator (a few MHz – essentially the same as the clock generator in all digital computers – everything has a clock, mobile phones too…) that went through a custom chip (essentially the heart of everything) which produced a fair approximation to the 12 notes in the equal tempered scale and came out as square-waves.  These were almost at bat level of hearing.

Each of the 12 notes was then successively divided in two producing square waves of descending octaves all the way down to about 16Hz.  (Divide by two chips are really cheap and simple flip-flop based circuitry). The particular tonal sounds were then made destructively with filters on the square waves.  This is the opposite to constructing a tone through synthesis (check out Fourier…).

I thus had a 61-key manual that could play all the notes of a 73-key manual.

  • If required.
  • Which in the end wasn’t very often.
  • It was a pretty noisy device….

Amplifiers

Both Jeff and I initially incorporated pre-made 100W high quality amplifier boards in our boxes from Crimson Elektrik, who are still going.  The amps were great hi-fi amps with short circuit protection but with the power supplies being inside the boxes made everything a bit hummy.

So afterwards they were pulled from the boxes, individually powered and then the low voltage split & balanced power supply to each of our boxes and other effects was supplied through long heavy duty cable from one central power supply I made up and boxed using an old transformer I’d taken from a hi-fi amp I’d made 3 years earlier…..

Why low voltage supplies?

Much of our electronics used op-amps.  Check this link to find out what they are….  Most, but not all were 741s and I guess between us we had just under 200 in our cases.  Op-amps require split voltage power, most of them with a Vmax of 18V.  Most of the magazine circuits said 12V so I set the voltage rails at +15V and -15V to get a bit more headroom in the signal.

Steve (FAtty) Savage
Steve Savage testing the headphone amp in the drum booth

In those days there were no chopper power supplies so unless you used PP9 batteries your power had to come from the mains and get transformer-ed down.  This created hum and so I made the separate low voltage supply with long leads to take the transformers as far away as possible from the microphone and guitar input….

Headphone Amp

I used a circuit found in ETI to drive the studio headphones after some time.

Headphone amplifier circuit from ETI magazine
Headphone amplifier circuit from ETI magazine

It was cheap but very effective.  It’d drive several pairs of headphones in the drum booth and elsewhere.  The circuit is shown here.

Mixing Desk

A bit like Bill Gates’ supposed quote about 640k memory bing enough, Jeff and I thought 8 channels would be enough….. har bloody har as we rapidly found out.

I made an 8-channel stereo mixer based on an ETI design built around LM381AN chips.  These were very low noise for the time and could support balanced microphones.  I of course made some alterations to the circuits to give separate foldback and echo outputs as well as customised re-enter points for the signal chains.

After Holly’s arrival I joined his 6-channel mixer to it with similar electronic fudgery so we now had 14-channels to play with.

Tape Decks

As is well-known, we’d bounce sound from whatever tape recorders were to hand time after time.  While twiddling with an Akai reel-to-reel with GX heads borrowed from “Jim of Durrim” we discovered the power of echo…..echo…..echo……echo….

This discovery gave us a great deal of the CC sound.  I used two channels of the mixer to receive return feeds from the stereo tape deck, the time delay deriving from the record and playback heads being an inch or two apart.  So the chain went like this:

  • Instrument -> mixer channel 1
  • Mixer channel 1 echo out -> tape left input
  • Tape left output  -> mixer channel 7 input
  • Mixer channel 7 echo out -> tape right input
  • Tape right output -> mixer channel 8 input
  • Mixer channel 8 echo out -> tape left input

Mixer channels 7 & 8 were then fed into the mix providing “echo”.  The level of feedback was generally controlled with ch8 echo send.

Since all mixing level controls were independent any degree of echo could be achieved.  You can hear this a lot in our work.  Tangerine Dream used a similar technique I think, listening to this track, say….

Keyboard Sound

I particularly liked the sound of my keyboard, gently flanged at slow VCO speed set to be slightly different to the echo delay interval.  I used it a lot but not to the fore as really, it gets very boring to the listener.  Great to play though – just as you introduce the flanging into the echo – it’ like a drug rush….  only saying.  🙂

The Effects

Recent ads for Colorsound Fuzz Wah Pedal (2018)
Recent ads for Colorsound Fuzz Wah Pedal (2018)

Jeff had his old Colorsound wah-fuzz-swell pedal which go for stupid money nowadays considering they only have a few transistors inside as we found out when we had to fix it a few times…  BC107 I think, from memory.  Most fixes were to get out the old Servisol spray to de-grime the carbon track in the pot.  Servisol is still made and is made in Bridgwater where I lived for many years.  The mixer tracks benefited a lot from it too.

From memory, the rest of our stuff was similar in many ways with two particular circuits derived from Practical Electronics magazine – a fancy fuzz and a fancy wah.  One fuzzed in various ways and the other filtered in various ways.  Each circuit had their own VCO & VCA with each VCO having separate outputs and each VCA having separate inputs.

VCO & VCA are at the heart of old style analogue synthesisers such as used by Walter/Wendy Carlos.  These can be easily converted or used to control a VCF.  This is precisely what these circuits were – they were defined as guitar effects circuits but the reality is that they were synth parts in punk skirts.

Other effects were:

  • rubbish spring reverbs,
  • a fantastic ring modulator,
  • 12 and 3 comb phasing units,
  • three channel tone controls which I made and designed from scratch
  • graphic equaliser (pretty hummy)
  • mike and line level amp plus the above 3-channel tone control
  • separate 3 channel mixer with 3 channel tone control….again
  • outboard flanger using the new-fangled-at-the-time bucket brigade electronic chips – ours had the SAD1024 chip.

Tweeters, Power Amps and Things

I was much impressed reading about piezo tweeters when they first came out since I’d blown tons of standard coil ones and these things had an inbuilt high-pass filter so no funny crossover units needed to be made.  For main speakers I used ready made boxes from Wimslow Audio (still going) and Celestion drive units as I couldn’t afford the JBL’s that Can used…. 🙁  They had a similar specification to the JBL’s and a few dB more sound output cf other drive units at the time.

When the boxes were bought I ditched the 100W amps and I made a properly boxed stereo amp of 225W rms per channel using the circuit and parts from Maplin Electronics.  It was bloomin’ heavy because of the massive transformers yet was easily repairable since it used the readily available power transistors like the 2N3005 which again, are still available now….

This was our PA  – which we also used in the studio……

What’s The Fucking Point of All of This?

Good point.

It just demonstrates that it took ages for us to get off the ground.  As I’ve mentioned elsewhere we didn’t have a real idea of what we’d do.  WE liked Can, Iggy, Bowie, Tomita, Walter Carlos and others and at that time the Maclaren’s creation the Sex Pistols had made an explosion in simple grit sounds of angst and wistful stupidity, so we more or less did the same but all stirred up. Chaotically if you like.  Crawling to an unknown end.

The electronics that we made undoubtedly moulded our sounds since anything created has to sit within a framework of available technology – e.g. you cannot hope to make phasing sounds from drums and a flute made from papyrus reeds, can you?

Likewise, the political and social environment moulded our compositions in their own way.  And yes, Margaret Thatcher was and still is a devil.

People like her are the cause of all social ills across the world.  I always said that I’d dance on her grave, but no need – the fact that for the last years of her life, every morning when she awoke she asked “where’s Dennis?” and had to be told that her beloved husband was dead, that’s good enough.  But her legacy rolls on and it is actually getting worse.

There’s a real nastiness in the world that far transcends the mere scheming greed of slavery and torture of previous centuries.  The nastiness is that the so-called educated and civilised peoples of the world have not learnt from earlier horrors and seek to descend back into the black pit.  It’s like The Enlightenment never happened sometimes.

Really, it’s harking to the subterranean primitives that HP Lovecraft often alluded to in some of his more darker racist meanderings….  WE should learn from this shite – not use it as a fucking template!

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