Analogue Keyboard Controller
The Ondes Martenot was one of the earliest 20th-century electronic musical instruments, and found favour with composers of avant-garde orchestral works for many years. Now, thanks to Cornish company Analogue Systems, it's getting a new lease of life...
Are you bored of the same old same old? I am. In fact, when it comes to synths and recording equipment, it now takes quite a lot to excite me. Show me the latest virtual analogue synth and it's likely that I will remain quite unmoved. Sure, I remember being very excited by the Clavia Nord Lead when it was released (see my review in SOS May 1995 or at www.sound-on-sound.com/sos/1995_articles/may95/clavianordlead.html) but let's be honest - nothing much has changed since then. We now enjoy greater polyphony, and better effects sections, and instruments such as the Korg Zl offer a wider range of physical models, but the philosophy and the way people use virtual analogue synths hasn't really changed in the intervening six years, whether we use them as hardware keyboards or (as has increasingly been the case over the last couple of years) in the form of virtual instruments. Likewise, my feelings towards today's breed of S+S workstations and synths Many of these offer an astounding range of facilities, and processing power quite undreamed of just 10 or 15 years ago, but the frisson of discovering something truly new is lacking. I suspect that the last time I felt an S+S tingle running up my spine was also in 1995, when Korg introduced the multitimbral effects in the Trinity.
Today, however, I'm playing something that's giving me quite a buzz. But far from being the newest, latest, whizz-bang digital marvel, and a million miles from the Pentium- and G4- powered software products that often fill these pages, it harks back to an earlier, golden age of musical experimentation. Developed in the 1920s, it's none other than the controller section of an Ondes Martenot. For more background on this fascinating instrument, see the box about its origins below.
Given that it was an early electronic instrument, the Ondes Martenot was singularly playable, so it's not surprising that composers such as Barry Gray (see the box on the penultimate page of this article) continued to experiment with it throughout the '50s, '60s and 70s. Even today, its unique method of control and expression attracts musicians keen to develop new sounds and playing styles. So when Johnny Greenwood of Radiohead asked Analogue Systems to develop a Martenot-style controller for his modular analogue synthesizers, the company was keen to oblige.
Named the French Connection, Analogue Systems' design adopts the control mechanisms of the classic Martenot, but leaves the sound generation out, and packages everything in a neat unit designed to sit in front of any of the company's RS Integrator modular synths or, for that
matter, similar modulars produced by other manufacturers.
The keyboard itself is four octaves wide, and in front of this you'll find the wire controller with the small ring through which you insert your index finger. The wire (which is actually a fine nylon cord) is stretched above a fingerboard in which you'll find small circular depressions that represent the white notes on the keyboard; and protruding metal studs that mark the positions of the black notes.
To the left of the keyboard and the wire controller, there's a control panel reminiscent of those that you'll find on other Analogue Systems products. To the far left of this, there's a sprung X/Y joystick that returns to the central position when released. Above the joystick itself you'll find two knobs that determine the output range
for each axis, with a maximum maximum (if you see what I mean) of approximately 10V. There are four joystick outputs, two each for the 'X' axis and for the Y axis. These, like all other Analogue Systems devices, use 3.5mm sockets.
To the right of the joystick you'll find the large, sprung wooden button that also harks back to the original Martenot. If left untouched, this sits in its uppermost position, and generates an output CV of 0V. As you depress it, the CV rises progressively to a maximum of approximately 10V. Again, a knob located above the button itself controls the actual range of operation.
There are just two further controls on the French Connection, and these are the switches located immediately to the left of the keyboard. The first of these determines whether the pitch CV is controlled by the keyboard or by the wire controller. The other determines whether the keyboard produces a conventional trigger and gate, or whether the button produces an amplitude CV. There are eight physical outputs for these - three pitch CV outputs, three button CV outputs, a trigger output, and a gate output.
And that's all there is to it. Add an IEC mains input and an illuminated on/off switch to the right-hand side of the unit, and mount everything in a gorgeous, polished wooden case, and you have a French Connection.
The first time I had the opportunity to play a French Connection, I had no oscillators available to test it, but 1 was able to make do with an Analogue Systems RS8000 modular system, which contained RS100 filter and RS1 80 VCA modules. I raised the Resonance on the filter to maximum so that it went into self-oscillation and began to produce a sine wave at the cutoff frequency, and then patched the pitch CV output from the French Connection into the filter cutoff frequency input of the RS100. Finally, I patched the output from one of the French Connection's buttons to the RS180 VCA, and connected that to my monitors.
The results were magic. Not to the sound itself, you understand ... nobody could say that a self-oscillating filter passed through a VCA is anything to write home about. But controlling this sound using the French Connection proved to be completely intuitive and incredibly musical. The depressions and studs on the fingerboard made it simple to locate conventional semitones, and the ring moved without any discontinuities or unevenness. I could articulate each note individually and smoothly using the amplitude button, or create slides and vibrato without difficulty.
Of course, I didn't confine myself to playing a simple sine wave in this fashion. Once I had the French Connection in my studio, I had access to numerous oscillators, filters, and other modules, and began to experiment with patches that used the French Connection's multiple pitch CVs and button outputs. Again, the results were superb, and I'm prepared to stick my neck out and say that I could not have created
precisely the same musical performances in any other way. Of particular note, synthesized violins and cellos have never sounded this good! Then there were the flutes, whistles, atmospheric voices and amazing effects...
Of course, I was not recreating the sound of a vintage Ondes Martenot because the French Connection offers only the controllers of the original, not the sound generator or (most importantly) the complex resonators that gave it its distinctive, ethereal tones. But that's not the point. The French Connection still offers all the expressive potential of the Ondes Martenot.
Next, I experimented with the four permutations afforded by the two switches on the French Connection's control panel. Everything I've described so far had them set to 'Button + Slider' mode, thus imitating the Ondes Martenot itself. Change them to 'Keyboard + Keyboard' mode, and the French Connection then acts as a conventional CV + Trigger + Gate monosynth keyboard. But what of the other combinations?
'Keyboard + Slider' mode allows you to control the pitch of the sound using the wire controller, but trigger envelopes using the keyboard. This is quite different from using the button to control modules such as VCFs and VCAs, and offers performance possibilities that are unavailable on either the Ondes Martenot or on a conventional monosynth. Then there's 'Button + Keyboard' mode, which allows you to play the pitch of the sound conventionally using the keyboard, articulating notes using the button. This is not a unique way of doing things... you could do the same thing using a keyboard and joystick, but the French Connection does it very elegantly.
If I have to find a criticism (and I always do) it's in the positioning of the left-hand pulley that guides the wire (see below). This protrudes from the case into the space immediately in front of the bottom C key, thus fouling the ring and making it difficult to play this note accurately using the wire controller. Extending the case by a centimeter or thereabouts would cure this, so I hope that Analogue Systems will bear this in mind when planning the next production run.
There's only one other disappointment for me, but it's nothing to do with Analogue Systems. You can't use the French Connection with something as simple as a Roland SH101 or an ARP Axxe, because neither of these offers an input that allows you to control the VCA Gain. Sure, you can use the wire controller to provide the pitch CVs and use the keyboard as a Trigger/Gate, but it's not the same. To appreciate the true value of the French Connection, you'll need an ARP 2600 or a true modular synth that allows you to patch and play it as it was intended.
The French Connection does not, unfortunately, have a MIDI output. This is not an oversight and, when you think about it, there are good technological reasons why this should be so.
Consider the MIDI protocol: the messages that play notes on MIDI synths contain at least two commands: a Note On for the appropriate note, and (later on) a Note Off for the same note. Other common commands include velocity, modulation amount, pitch-bend, and MIDI volume.
Unfortunately, the French Connection doesn't fit this scheme, because there are no defined Notes Ons or Offs. You might think that this is no big deal... after all, you could use the keyboard to send a single Note On to fire up an external MIDI device, switch to 'Slider + Button' mode, and then generate the articulation of subsequent pitches using Controller 7 (MIDI volume). With two seven-bit words to define the pitch (one for the note number and one for the detune when the pitch lies between semitones) you could then define any pitch, sliding smoothly up and down the full-frequency range.
While not impossible, this is far from trivial, because the Note Number is part of the Note On command, so it's likely that the external device will be retriggered every
time you cross from one semitone to another. Nevertheless, setting up a suitable MIDI synth as a single-trigger monosynth may provide a solution, and I understand that Analogue Systems are looking into the possibilities of this. I sincerely hope that the company succeeds... imagine being able to control MIDI synths using the French Connection. That's an exciting prospect.
I don't want to give the French Connection back to Analogue Systems. It has added something new to my studio, something that it will take away when it leaves. Sure, I can go back to using the ribbon controller of my Yamaha KX5 (which i use with a footpedal to articulate notes) as I have done in the past. This has the huge benefit of outputting MIDI, but nevertheless, I'll never again be satisfied with its feel or responsiveness.
Finally, it's only right to note that the French Connection is not cheap. At just over a thousand pounds in the UK, it's only for the most committed composers and performers, plus that small handful of musicians with enough loose cash to be able to experiment as they wish. But for those who can justify the expense, it will provide a completely new opportunity for musical expression and creativity. I think that I can safely say that the French Connection is unique.
|The Origins Of The Ondes Martenot|
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Ondes Martenot was developed by a French chap named... Monsieur Martenot. Maurice Martenot (for it was he) was a French inventor born in 1898, who became a radio operator during the First World War. At this time, he noticed how the interaction of two pieces of similarly - but not identically - tuned electrical equipment could give rise to unwanted, but potentially musical, oscillations (a Russian gentleman named Leon Termin noticed the same thing, and used this technique to generate the audio signals in a subsequent invention of his, which he named the Theremin).
After the war, Martenot began his research into the musical applications of electricity and, in particular, the possibilities offered by allowing high-frequency oscillators to interfere with one another. However, much of his work over the ensuing nine years is clouded in mystery, because he did not unveil his eponymously named instrument until May 1928.
There are many web sites on the net where you can read about the Ondes Martenot, and find out which works and recordings use it. As good a place to start as any is: http://www.musicproductionschools.net/resources/electronic-music-in-the-20th-century/
|The French Connection's control panel hosts a sprung joystick and the wooden expression button. These both output control voltages whose maximum ranges are governed by the knobs above the controllers themselves. The control voltages are accessed via the 3.5mm jacks on the panel for connection to appropriate modular synths. Finally, but most importantly, the two small switches at the bottom right of the panel determine which controllers (slider, button, or keyboard) will be active.|
|Using the sliding ring to determine the pitch CV output by the French Connection.|
|Barry Gray & The Ondes Martenot|
You might think it unlikely that you've heard an Ondes Martenot unless you've studied obscure 20th-century classical music, but I'll lay odds that you have, even if you don't realise it. These instruments have cropped up in the most unlikely places... as the following story demonstrates.
If you were a child in the UK in the '50s or '60s, you may remember Gerry Anderson's early SuperMarlonation (puppet) series; the ones that have, so far, escaped digital remastering and broadcasting on primetime TV. These were produced by AP Films - the company that later became 21st Century - whose musical director was none other than Barry Gray, the composer who was to produce the music for the majority of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson's TV series.
|Johnny & The Martenots|
The French Connection was not born out of nowhere... it was commissioned during 2000 by Johnny Greenwood of the band Radiohead. Greenwood already owned an Ondes Martenot (an instrument built in 1983 by the son of Maurice Martenot) complete with all three resonators, but was nervous about performing with it, fearing that it would be damaged on tour. So he approached Martenot to purchase a second device for live use. Unfortunately for him (but fortunately for the rest of us) his instrument was one of a production run of just 50, and these were long gone - 44 to a music school in Japan, and the remaining five to other musicians.
So Greenwood approached Bob Williams, owner of Analogue Systems, to ask whether he would be prepared to design and build a replica for use with Radiohead's existing RS Integrators.
|The Demon: Keyboard Controller|
Above: the Demon's MIDI interface, sadly lacking at present on the French Connection.
French Connection £1050; Demon £550.
Prices include VAT.
T Analogue Systems +44 (0)1726 850103.
F +44 (0)1726 850103.