Experimental Electronic Artist – Eric Archer Interview

If you have not heard of Eric Archer stop now. Check out his site ericarcher.net, specifically the devices, and then come back to this. Eric is a prolific designer/builder in Austin, Texas with a knack for composing eyecandy that sounds as good as it looks. He is a unique creator with a passion for analog circuits with descrete logic controls instead of microcontrollers. His BBoT and ABoT creations are probably best known for their dazzling led lightshow and mind blowing sonic properties, which Eric employs either by himself, or as half of E-Squared or Bodytronix.

BBoT

His work with Bleep Labs on the Andromeda Mk IR linkable sound modules, which are often used in Handmade Music Austin learning workshops, is as impressive as his circuits that convert light to sound or those that can generate complex visuals to be viewed on scopes or even plotted on paper.

Money Synth

I actually found Eric’s work through photos on Flickr, and followed back to his own site.

He seems to have a pretty full schedule, but he found some time to answer some questions for an interview.



SM: Your website has a photo of you from 1988 at Space Camp. How long have you been working with electronics and technology? Did you study electronics in school or are you a self-taught experimenter?

EA: I’m not formally trained in electronics; I studied organic chemistry in college. But I was interested in music and electricity before that. As a kid, my folks encouraged me to tinker with electronics. My mom took me to thrift stores and we’d pick out old radios and gizmos for me to take apart. One of my first memories is my mom giving me a clock and a screwdriver when I was four years old. Later on, friends of the family began donating all kinds of old broken stuff for me to mess around with – photocopiers, teletypes, a 1970′s minicomputer… I collected electronics literature and started building circuits on perfboard in middle school. I remember ordering parts from Digi-key by phone as a kid in the ’80s, and spending many hours in a surplus electronics store called Altex in San Antonio. I sold a custom fuzz pedal to a friend in 9th grade, made with a 741 op amp. I loved playing metal guitar and experimenting with FX pedals. Space Camp is where the music fascination really took off… I bought a cassette dub of Metallica’s And Justice For All from another Space Camper for $5 and realized that music was perhaps more important than space.

I still have some of the boards I made back then. Its a trip to look at them now, 20 years later, and compare the construction style.

digital counter

Digital counter with 7-segment LED display, ca. 1990

Actually, lots of the stuff I tried to make back then didn’t work, which was frustrating. The only instrumentation I had was an analog volt-ohm meter, making it nearly impossible to troubleshoot digital electronics.

Most of the literature I studied then is still useful now; Don Lancaster’s books stand out. Lancaster’s writing is very effective in communicating theory without walloping the reader with equations. Books by Forrest Mims III were a little more gratifying in the short term because of the variety of simple circuits he presents, but in many cases he doesn’t discuss how the circuit actually works. One book I really wish I had found earlier is The Art of Electronics by Horowitz and Hill. Its excellent as a reference; the theory is deep but presented really well.

If I had majored in electrical engineering in college, things might be different now. I’d certainly be better with math and circuit analysis. In place of those skills though, I’m always refining my sense of intuition, the ability to visualize what is happening in a circuit, and estimate which component values to use without math. In the realm of music and art, this works fine. But of course if I was designing cell phones, guesstimation would get me fired. I regret not studying computer science though. Writing code is a fundamental part of what a lot of people doing with DIY electronics today.

SM: What inspires you to design what you make?

EA: I look for new ways to generate patterns. Patterns are a connection between electronics and aesthetics. Patterns can be manifested as waveforms, timbre, rhythms, song structures, visual art, video, sculpture, language, everything. Electronic circuits are great sources of patterns. They can be digital if I want a deterministic (reproducible) pattern generator, or analog if I’m looking for a malleable and soft source of information. With a palette of pattern generators in hand, information is being generated, but it is not yet perceptible to the ear or eye. That requires a second category of circuits. This type accepts electronic patterns and converts them to sound or light. And there is a third category, circuits that interconvert aesthetic information, translating light to sound for example.

Raymond Scott’s work is inspiring. I was shocked to find out about the Electronium, and many of my ideas today revolve around designs for automatic composition machines.

SM: What has been the most gratifying device/project so far?

EA: Digital pattern generators are amazing. You just have to build an LFSR (linear feedback shift register) and play with it to realize these things just spew out aesthetic information, of however much complexity you desire, up to the point that you catch a glimpse of the beautiful horizon between repetition and randomness. Of course it’s impossible to generate random information with logic, but with digital feedback the patterns can become so complex that they appear random to humans. The digital algorithms I use are simplified versions of cryptographic key generators. An encryption key ideally looks like noise. But, take this same information and design a filter to reduce it’s complexity, and you gain access to its insanely detailed sub-structure.

caterpillar lens graphic

Caterpillar Lens (2007) archival ink on paper, 8?x10?

I’ve made a number of experimental circuits that make aesthetic output from digital feedback. The MuseWave (2005) synthesizes complex waveforms directly. The Bird Box sequencer (2008) plays linear drum patterns. The Fibonacci Generator (2009) is my favorite so far. It creates note sequences and glide information to control a monophonic analog synth. I also used the Fibonacci Generator to synthesize vector graphics for video… it creates unreal, twisting animated pseudo-3D knots.

YouTube Preview Image

SM: Your circuits make a pretty amazing arc: visual-to-sound, oscillators-to-graphics, sequencers, sound modules, just to try to group a few ideas. They are not focused into just one pursuit. Do you have any idea of where your work will be heading?

EA: I’m gearing up to improve my live presentation. I love performing with handmade equipment. Down the road a bit I’ll be generating visuals and music simultaneously.

SM: How much of your work comes from previous work? Permutations of stumbling blocks/breakthroughs of other devices?

EA: Haha… well, every project seems to hit a point where there’s no room left for another chip or knob, so I stop there, and wait for a chance to reuse the good ideas in something new.

From 2006-2009 I did a lot of pro audio service, maintaining consoles and tape machines for recording studios, fixing synths and rack gear too. Spending time under the hood of high end equipment (and under the gun) taught me a few things about building reliable gear.

SM: You have many unique and complex circuits on your site. What kind of things were you making before those devices that led up to those devices?

EA: I made lots of stuff that didn’t work. In grade school I participated in the science fair every year, some of those things were pretty crazy. In 8th grade I designed a digital audio sampler with discrete logic (never worked). In 10th grade I had a vacuum apparatus to synthesize buckminsterfullerenes (couldn’t prove it worked). I got tired of trying to build AM and FM radios, most of which were failures. I built an electric guitar from scratch in high school, and it kind of worked. Later on the success rate went up. I built the Royer – MXL tube mic mod from Tape Op magazine and got lots of use from it. And somehow, I spent almost 10 years as a synthetic organic chemist, making funny white powders for universities and corporations.

SM: You say that BBoT and ABOT are improvisational because they offer no memory or storage. How much control do you have? Is the music reproducible manually?

EA: Its usually fruitless to try reproducing something from a previous session. While there are number of code-wheels that control parameters for the rhythm and melody generators which can be written down, there is also real-time programming involved, pressing buttons at the right moment to synchronize the rhythm tracks, load information into the digital feedback circuits, etc. That makes it much more tricky. There are also about 10 oscillators to tune manually. It really lends itself to serendipity instead of pre-conceived music.

SM: Does preferring old school technology/chips/design make your bigger devices power hungry? I am guessing your BBoT/ABoT rig is not battery operated.

EA: Actually it’s not too power-hungry. I use CMOS chips for everything (74HC, CD4000). And I switched to TL062 / TL064 op amps instead of TL072; this move alone cuts power consumption greatly. I recommend ditching the TL072′s in any battery-powered circuit. You probably won’t notice the difference and your batteries will last longer.

True, ABoT / BBoT are not battery operated. They run on split supplies, +/-12V or +/-15V. With analog music circuits, a good stiff power supply is important to keep things in tune and the tempo consistent.

SM: How did the photocell control make it’s way into the Andromeda circuits? Was it there from the start? It takes them up a level from already being amazing.

EA: The Andromeda Mk’s were designed as a projects for the Handmade Music Austin workshop series, so I’m associated with Bleep Labs in that way; they donated a huge sack of photocells and I figured why not use them? Putting photocells on a drum machine has been done before though; Quintron’s Drum Buddy is one example. I guess I imagined the Andromeda Mk’s as something for people to experiment with… why not build a dream
machine (light inside a perforated paper cylinder on a turntable) and surround it with light-controlled drums? It takes it from being analog to really analog. It tempers the predictability of a drum sequence with the randomness of ambient light.

The Bridged-T network is a theme that was used a lot in vintage analog drum machines both as a tone source and a filter. They are a little tricky to use because of the complex relationship between component values and the center frequency of the network. Check out that math expression. Ugh. It means that if you use a normal potentiometer, the response wont be smooth as you turn the pot. But when I was experimenting with photocells, I dropped a photocell in place of the fixed resistor R1, and found that it gives a surprisingly smooth response. Photocells are also quite nonlinear in the relationship between resistance and light intensity. It just so happens that these two nonlinearities cancel eachother out somehow and the photocell is a natural fit in the Bridged-T network; and when nature hands you something lucky like that, you better use it. I suggested this circuit to 4ms Pedals, and it became the analog filter element in the Autonomous Bassline Generator as well.

Bridged T Network

SM: You did a mini tour on your way to play Bentfest 09. Do you think you’ll do that again when you head to Bentfest 10?

EA: Erich and I (Bodytronix) intended to book some more shows but it’s been hard to keep up with contacts and scheduling. I found that the venues we played last year have less funding available this year. I guess the economy isn’t booming just yet. We may do a show in the Chapel Hill area on the way up to NY. And we’ve been booked for the Fusebox festival in Austin the week after Bent Fest, so we’re calling that part of our 2010 tour.

SM: Would you say living in Austin with it’s music scene and the Keep Austin Weird mantra influence your work?

EA: Haha, I’m acquainted with some of the “weirder” Austin musicians from the noise scene, creative improv, and electronic nerds. Its inspiring to see the ideas they come up with. It makes me feel like a square sometimes… like How I Quit Crack and VC Childcraft performing outdoors in a teepee full of pillows with lasers and a fog machine. I am so old and stuffy.

SM: You participate in a lot of local workshops. Do you find this interaction helpful for your own learning?

EA: Handmade Music Austin has been a great opportunity to connect with people who are developing an interest in DIY electronics. It reminds me of the difficulties I had earlier on, and as a designer, thats important feedback when I’m creating new projects. Also we usually ask the workshop participants what projects they’d like to see in the future, and that can inspire some homework.

SM: Could you talk a little about your work for the Childrens’ Museum of Houston and Austin Children’s Museum?

EA: These were collaborations with Erich Rose, a friend of mine who’s an experienced designer. When we work together, Erich does the mechanical design and fabrication, and I do the circuitry and wiring. For the Austin museum, we worked together on a transportation-themed exhibit called All Systems Go; I built a set of telephone intercoms for kids to use, a big remote operated switchboard with blinky lights, simulated card-swipe readers, etc.

For Children’s Museum of Houston we collaborated on a project called Bytes and Bots which is located in the Invention Convention exhibit, a large room full of activities. We were handed conceptual drawings from a design firm, and our job was to flesh out the designs, prototype them, and build the final versions. This was about 3 months of work for me; I had to design six types of sensors (sound, light, force, skin resistance, rotation, and proximity) and a set of output devices that connect to the sensors. The output devices are pretty interesting, there’s a mini laser light show, a mechanical face with servo-controlled expressions, a servo-controlled tilting labyrinth game, analog synthesizers, arrays of hundreds of RGB LEDs, and more. The biggest challenge in designing museum exhibits is to make everything as durable as possible. Just imagine hundreds of hands pushing every button over and over, people leaning their body weight on things that might break, etc. For the Houston exhibit, we built the enclosures with thick acrylic plastic held together with socket head cap screws. Its a nice durable combination, and the kids can see lots of handwired circuit boards inside everything. I hope somebody gets inspired to build!


I’d like to give Eric a big thanks for the interview.

To learn more about electronics check out Eric’s tips page, your local library, the internet, and resell book stores.

To learn more about Eric Archer check out his website and follow the links on his about me page.

By Sailormouth