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Spectraphon - Make Noise

Spectraphon - Make Noise

by Ellison Wolf

The Make Noise/Tom Erbe of Soundhack collaboration has a pretty stellar track record. Echophon, tELHARMONIC, Morphagene, Mimeophon, Erbe-Verb, and now the Spectraphon…it’s an impressive handful of modules to say the least.
A dual Spectral Oscillator, Spectraphon seems a little less cryptic than some Make Noise modules—at least to my eyes—and resembles your typical complex oscillator, both in format and function, which is not surprising as Make Noise says that it’s inspired by the Buchla 259, as well as the Buchla 296, and the Buchla Touché synth, a veritable unicorn among vintage synths. Where there were about 13,000 MiniMoogs made, there were only four Buchla Touchés. I’ve no idea if Make Noise or Tom Erbe (Waveform, issue #5) got their hands on one to help with Spectraphon’s creation, but along with those instruments, others such as vocoders, other spectral processors, and the like helped inspire Spectraphon, and when you get behind the wheel, you see where and how that inspiration is implemented.
Spectraphon uses real-time spectral analysis and resynthesis in order to make new sounds from existing ones, and does this by taking incoming audio and analyzing it, then taking the information gained from that analysis and puts it on an input, combining, manipulating, and modulating those specific elements of the analyzed sounds. It’s quite a finessed way to implement a complex oscillator-ish dynamic between two signals, and in practice Spectraphon acts sort of like a highly intelligent being souped up on massive amounts of caffeine, able to read minds and stay one step ahead. To do this, the processing speed needs to be impressively quick and still work well on a sonic level, so much so that Make Noise (with engineer Jeff Snyder) devised a new hardware platform in order to lower the noise floor and attain higher resolution at the in and outputs, to get everything out of the Spectraphon that it could. It does indeed sound great, clear and defined in the ways that it should, though when a sound is distorted (and is supposed to be), really, how to tell? The processing speed of Spectraphon is impressive, and if there happened to be any sort of processing lag, or artifacts or anything, I couldn’t detect it with my ears. I still can’t wrap my head around the speed it would take to analyze an incoming signal and then use that information to control a digital synth engine, but then again it takes me twenty minutes to make a peanut butter sandwich.
Spectraphon, like most (all?) complex oscillators, is divided into two sides: A and B. At the top of the module are inputs for each side and four outputs for each as well; a Sine out (which outputs a sine wave of the selected core frequency), a Sub/CV out (an Envelope Follower in SAM mode, or a Sub-Oscillator in SAO mode; the modes we’ll get to in a second), and an Odd and Even harmonic output. The last two are the ones you really want to play with to hear Spectraphon work its magic and the differences in tonality between the odds and evens are large. If you think there’s not much difference between 1,3,5,7 and 2,4,6,8 etc., this will make you think again.
Both A and B have a 1V/Oct input and give you control over Frequency, Slide, Focus, and Partials, with each of those parameters able to take incoming CV and attenuate/vert those signals. There’s also an FM Bus Index in the middle of the module and with that Spectraphon can work just like a normal complex oscillator, frequency modulating each side in the typical fashion, which is fun to do. As Spectraphon has two sides, each side also has two modes: SAM (Spectral Amplitude Modulation) and SAO (Spectral Array Oscillation). SAM mode takes sound at the input and uses it to modulate the level of a set of harmonics, and any current spectrum can be saved as an Array, to be used when switched to SAO mode. SAO mode can take those stored Arrays (up to sixteen for each side) of spectral information of incoming sound taken at the inputs in SAM mode and use that information to modulate and shape sound. In essence, it’s kind of like SAM is a sampler of spectral information and SAO is/are the cache and playback of spectral samples made in SAM.
I wanted an easy way to hear an example of how this would work and sound, so at first I used Spectraphon as a vocoder since I know my voice and what it should sound like. Patching in a microphone via the Joranalogue RX2 and getting my voice into Euro world, I heard the shifts in tonality using the Slide to alter the fundamental frequency and the Focus to choose the harmonic emphasis (like Q on a compressor, or filter resonance, to a degree), while pitching up and down my vocal with the Frequency knob. Super trippy. Changing some of the other parameters on the B side, as well as the FM Mod Index and my voice sometimes disappeared, and mostly became unrecognizable, a digitized raspy version of my usual, wonderful, harmonious self. It was definitely different from your typical vocoder, and honestly, after just this initial test period I realized how fun and powerful Spectraphon could be. You may be hearing Spectraphon on all hit records (or at least all of my records) for the next decade if it goes the way that Autotune did in the 90s, as I predict.
A button at the top of each side selects from SAM or SAO mode (along with other alternate combo duties) and when in SAO mode, Slide and Focus change functions. It’s a lot of duality, this new Make Noise module, and a lot of changing, and this compounded duality equals large numbers of options, features, and sounds.
Slide sets which harmonics are emphasized and works with the Focus to mold the spectrum of the outputted signal. Focus is a sort of an audio offset, shifting the time of the input and output, creating a lag that can conjure up odd overtones and at times gave me a light case of vertigo. It’s interesting how sound can cause feelings of displacement that manifest themselves physically, and Spectraphon has the capabilities to make you feel off-kilter.
All is not just blasting and analyzing, however. There’s what’s called the Tuning Beacon that displays tuning information and tells you the tuning relationship between the two sides of Spectraphon. It’s enough to wrap your head around Spectraphon’s capabilities without feeling like you need to remember which color of the lit beacon is for major sixths, and similar to that is the Array Binary, a four-colored LED display used to show the Slide and Focus values and which stored Array is selected. It was a bit too much for me, and I couldn’t remember all of it, but in no way did it matter with how much I enjoyed Spectraphon.
I messed with Spectraphon a lot while wearing headphones and sometimes I would take the cans off and my hearing would be altered for a small time afterwards, similar to when a light is flashed in a completely dark room and whatever you were looking at leaves a visual impression long after the light is gone. There's some sort of sonic residue there that I haven’t experienced with any other module, some kind of Make Noise magic leaving its imprint.
Spectraphon is a really unique module and even though I know I’ll never remember which Array setting is stored where, and I won’t be able to commit to memory the Tuning Beacon information, there’s no doubt this is a special module that will be seen and heard everywhere for the foreseeable future.

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