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Ron Berry: Synthesist, Designer, Hobbyist

Interview | Artist By Jonathan Miller
Published February 1996

In his time, Ron Berry has been a synth‑player and a freelance designer — but it's as an electronics hobbyist that he cut his teeth. Jonathan Miller meets the man who keeps the DIY ethic alive.

Amazing as it may seem to those of us reared on hi‑tech musical gadgetry, there was a time when cash‑strapped recording musicians had to do it themselves! This was the golden age of make‑do‑and‑mend, in which necessity was the mother of invention, and there was no Sound On Sound to get you out of a tight spot.

Most of us dabbled in solder and Veroboard for reasons of poverty, rather than a passion for electronics. For Ron Berry, however, it was always a bit of both. Today though, Ron's electronic projects are a long way from a simple pre‑amp or fuzzbox. If his name sounds vaguely familiar, perhaps it's because you've experienced the UK electronic music scene, either on record or at one of the many festivals held around the country since the first UK Electronica in 1983. Here, Ron performed to great acclaim, alongside fellow instrumentalists Mark Shreeve and Ian Boddy.

Early '80s cassette releases culminated in 1985's stunningly‑packaged vinyl album Osiris (inspired by The Egyptian Book Of The Dead) and threw Ron into the spotlight as one of our most original and innovative electronic artists. The fact that, bar a Godwin string machine, he designed and built his entire analogue arsenal of synthesizers, sequencers and drum machines himself, has always helped set him apart from his peers.

By the time of the Wastelands album and its accompanying performance at the 1987 UK Electronica, Ron was premiéring his Acoustic Modelling (AM) Synthesizer. It predated Yamaha and Korg's recent efforts by several years, albeit using analogue modules developed over the previous three years. The album's sleeve notes explain, 'by creating accurate electronic models of physical instruments, this synth can produce a variety of instrumental sounds, plus many strange effects.' Clearly Ron was stretching the boundaries of home‑built electronics to the limit!

Musically, there has been a period of soundtrack work using commercially available instrumentation in close liaison with botanist David Bellamy's video production company, David Bellamy Associates Ltd. An award‑winning episode of the television series England's Last Wilderness featured 13 minutes of Ron's music. Sadly, this lucrative sideline was prematurely curtailed by a studio break‑in — although fortunately, the wretched miscreant left Ron's irreplaceable custom‑built gear behind — presumably the wire‑encrusted AM and associated modular synthesizer were beyond his (or her) comprehension!

With Ron now comfortably ensconced in a spacious, rural home studio, and an independent record company about to remaster his back catalogue to CD, it's enough to turn the average home recordist green with envy!

Obviously a lot of time and effort has been invested in the property, by Ron and his equally DIY‑enthusiastic wife. In two years, they've turned a run‑down farm cottage into a rural idyll. As Ron led me around the recently‑completed studio outbuilding, offering a fascinating insight into his unusual working methods, I found it hard to imagine that poultry used to be kept there!

Radio Days

When did your insatiable passion for building recording equipment start?

"I was interested in making valve and transistor radios from about the age of 10. By 13 I was into electric guitars in a big way. I'm originally a guitarist, but my interest in electronic music goes back to about '72/73, when groups like Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream were starting to get well‑known, and Robert Moog was developing his synthesizers. I heard some electronic music on record by those artists, and also some classical stuff by the likes of Walter Carlos and Morton Subotnik, and felt I just had to get involved.

"The prices of these instruments were way beyond my means at the time — some of them still are, but I did have abilities in making electronic circuits. I was getting interested in the design of electronic circuits and saw an article in Wireless World magazine for a small modular synthesizer, which had been designed by Tim Orr of EMS fame — so I built it, and still use it today. At first, its circuitry wasn't particularly stable, and I had enormous tuning and reliability problems. You could easily damage the circuits if you patched things incorrectly, but the results I got from it convinced me that I wanted to carry on with electronic music. So I decided to revamp it, re‑designing all the oscillators, the filter and adding other things like a little graphic equaliser, and an extra low frequency oscillator.

"After that, I made an ordinary 2‑track tape recorder from another article in Wireless World — that was essentially my first recording studio! I used to put pieces of music together by setting something up on the synth, recording it onto track one, and bouncing it across to the other track whilst simultaneously adding something else. After repeating this process several times, I usually ended up with something that might be musically interesting, but totally swamped in hiss, and so grainy that you couldn't really enjoy it!"

You also have a larger, more traditional‑looking modular synthesizer. When did you build this?

"Spurred on by the success that I had with Tim Orr's design in 1974, the following year I spent nine months building a more sophisticated modular system of my own design, which today is still pretty much in its original form. The only major difference between this system and the Moog ones is that mine is linear and theirs are logarithmic — which are very temperamental in their tuning. So I built a linear one, because I was interested in performing on stage and wanted stability. It is possible to stabilise logarithmic oscillators, but unfortunately you lose the advantage of having great big wide frequency sweeps."

Given your interest in electronic music, developing a reliable sequencing system must have been high on your priority list?

"Early on, I built a simple step‑time analogue sequencer for the modular system which was loosely based on the Moog one. It hasn't got the triggering facilities that the Moog has, but it's still quite useful, and I use it an awful lot.

"In about 1978/'79 I got hold of a KIM1 microprocessor board with 1K of RAM and 8‑bit processing. I got into writing machine code, and wrote a small program that could play simple sequences and produce them in the form of control voltages. I used these to trigger the oscillators in a kind of replica Minimoog that I added to the main modular synthesizer, plus a set of trigger outputs to a drum machine that I built, consisting of five electronic percussion modules. The microprocessor program also only allowed me to input sequences in step‑time, but it could play a whole set of sequences in different orders, so I could go out and perform with it.

A physics principle is a physics principle — it doesn't matter whether you use analogue or digital techniques.

"Later, the SYM1 microprocessor with its greater memory capabilities replaced the old KIM1, and I continued writing sequencing programs, eventually ending up with one that could generate 15 control voltages and handle 12 drum trigger outputs. This sequencer program allows me to assemble sequences in any order and repeat them any number of times. Any output line can have any sequences on it, and sequences can be any length up to 83 notes.

"It's also possible to do weird things like split up the timing of the notes of one sequence and superimpose that on another sequence — they don't have to be the same length. So you could have a sequence with just rhythmic structure — let's say it's got 21 notes of all sorts of different lengths, then you could have a sequence of eight pitches, and the timing can then be superimposed on the eight — so each time the 21 note sequence goes around, the eight moves along in time. I used that effect on 'A Voice In The Wilderness,' where there's a lengthy, slow, meandering section. It's a very open‑ended system."

Reel To Reel Cacophony

Your present recording studio is virtually surrounded by reel‑to‑reel tape recorders. Why the need for so many?

"I was getting frustrated because I wanted to properly record some of the things I'd done. So I started to build recording equipment. I saw an advert in a magazine for old tape decks at a place called M&B Radio in Leeds. The guy there said he had 150 of them, so I bought an ex‑BBC machine for £40, and converted it into a stereo tape recorder of my own design.

"I was so impressed with the deck's performance that I bought another one, having created a rudimentary 4‑track recorder from an old scrap Brennel machine that someone gave me in the meantime — my first introduction to multitrack recording. It worked quite well for a quarter‑inch narrow format, but I sold it to a friend and bought components to build a half‑inch 4‑track on the second deck. I then had the problem of widening everything out, so I took it down to a local engineering firm, and a chap there opened out the guides from quarter inch to half inch in his lunch hour, free of charge! I improved its performance even more by adding some little Dolby B chips that are normally found in cassette recorders.

"I recorded my debut cassette‑album, When Dark Forces Meet, on the first 4‑track in 1980/81, followed by A Voice In The Wilderness and Osiris on the half‑inch 4‑track. Although it was very nice to have things in synchronisation, the problem with the 4‑track was that there wasn't enough tracks — but I soon realised that a lot of the elements of the music that I was doing didn't actually need to be in perfect synchronisation. By adapting my equipment, there was an opportunity to expand and add more tracks without going to the tremendous expense at that time of buying a 16‑track for £4,000 or £5,000.

"I went back to the chap at M&B Radio, and ended up with another four ex‑BBC machines, plus two for spares. During A Voice In The Wilderness and Osiris, I was making music that was put together partly from multitracked stuff, and partly 2‑track stuff spun in at the right time. The big problem with that was I had to rush around starting and stopping tape recorders all the time, so I wrote a machine code program on a BBC microcomputer which acts as a remote control to start and stop them for me using a system of relays. The program involves having a timer running with events to start and stop the machines, and I can either input specific events for all the recorders, or 'play' the recorders manually by ear, using the remote to 'remember' what I did. There's also a certain amount of editing facilities which were tremendous in its day."

It sounds almost like a precursor to the principle of many of today's popular sequencing software packages, like Steinberg Cubase...

"Today, there's a trend towards hard disk recorders with file names and event lists. My system is exactly the same thing, but in a primitive form, with old analogue recorders. It allows me to experiment with fragments of music, ideas or sound effects, store them on tape and play them back at any time I want. It's a very interesting way of composing, trying to match stuff together. A good example of this is a floating piece of music on Osiris, called 'Lake Of Horus' — I would never have come up with that using traditional multitrack methods."

Remix And Match

Your pièce de résistance is your unique mixing desk, which took you six months to make and is the focal point of your studio.

Given that it's tailored specifically for your own use, in what ways does it differ from commercially available designs in a similar price bracket?

"This desk is officially the RB MkII — extended mix! It's really an extension of my previous 12:8:2 design, which I built with small throw faders to a very tight budget about 13 years ago. The new desk overcame these problems at a cost of roughly £600, although the cost was cut down by getting a lot of things in bulk at trade prices.

"I bought a big job lot of aluminium panels, years ago when I started making the synthesizer. I also used a lot of surplus or end‑of‑line components that you can get from electrical distributors if you know where to go. It's a matter of sending off for everybody's catalogue and wading through them to find out what you can use. To buy just the components of this desk at brand new retail prices you'd probably pay £1,000 or more, so I've saved myself quite a lot of money.

"It's a fairly standard 20:8:2 design including a flexible, but simple EQ system — with additional controls of slope for the high frequency; a Q control for the swept mid; and frequency control for the low frequency, PFL and true solo switching that allows you listen to individual channels with any effects you've applied, etc.

"The main difference is its expanded auxiliary send facilities. The send system is a bank of four knobs, the first two of which can be pre‑ or post‑fade onto Send 1 and 2. The second pair are post‑fade, and can be routed to Send 3, 4, 5 or 6. Each knob has its own individual switch to make the send section of the mixer more like a separate matrix mixer, and can be set up into separate mixes, because the mixer in this studio is really an extension of the modular synthesizer.

"Everything has been standardised to jack plugs so, in theory, everything that appears on the mixer jack panel can be wired across to the modular synthesizer which can then be used both to generate sounds for mixing onto tape, and process taped sounds. There are inserts on each channel of the mixer, so the synthesizer can be used as a processing device on the inserts, as well as ordinary outboard equipment."

I notice you've avoided opting for a modular construction...

"Well, it's quite a lot of hard work to make channel strips, so I made them in sections of 10, which makes it a little bit harder to maintain the desk, but there is still reasonable access to the electronics. Even so, it was a very time‑consuming process marking the positions of all the holes for the controls on the underside of the aluminium panels with a scriber, to end up with a grid of scribed lines which are then centre‑punched, drilled with a fine drill, and finally opened up with progressively larger drills until you have a completed matrix of holes. It was probably about a night's work to do the basic cutting out and marking for each individual panel, plus a whole evening just spent drilling all the holes.

"As it was based on the old 12:8:2 mixer, there was very little in the way of additional circuit design, although I obviously had to manufacture new boards to fit the new components. There are 120 printed circuit boards in there, which took me most of the Christmas holiday to make, working solidly at it all the time! Fitting the components onto the boards was another long job, so I started getting up early in the morning and doing a hour on them before I went to work, and then another hour in the evening after tea. It was both a great sense of achievement and relief when I finished the thing!"

There's so much more to explore in physical modelling, that to confine activities to simply 'copying' existing real instruments seems such a shame to me.

How did you set about tackling the often expensive and nightmarish task of organising the studio's cabling?

"I do some spare time design work for an electronics company, so I can get cheap bits of cabling from them, which helps. It's ordinary, unbalanced, lapped screen hi‑fi cable, which works okay in short runs and is dead cheap! The studio's all unbalanced, because it's essentially one big synthesizer. There's no elaborate under‑floor wiring. Everything is well earthed, and the cables are tightly bunched in some trunking which I found lying around in the house."

Mirror, Mirror On The Wall...

Could you tell me about the rather stange‑looking 'mirror' reverb situated in one of the studio's cupboards?

"A long time ago, everybody used to rave about EMT plate reverbs. I quite liked their sound, but they're very expensive. However, there was a very small company in Stafford called NSF, who used to make something similar, but cheaper, and I bought one second‑hand. In this studio I've had to take it out of its casing, because it wouldn't fit into the cupboard, but in my previous house I had the whole unit in a wardrobe — which often confused people!

"If someone was to offer me a digital Lexicon studio reverb, then obviously I'd take it, but the NSF sounds nicer than most cheaper digital reverbs. It has a very complex and quite rich reverberation, and even though it's purely mechanical it can still produce a variety of effects — plus it does tend to fit in with the general analogue nature of the studio."

What made you choose the Tannoy Super Reds for monitoring?

"They were a bargain at the time! I actually started monitoring on a pair of Elliptical speakers, but they were absolutely dreadful! Later, I used a pair of horn loaded Lowther speakers for a while, which I then heard were becoming collector's items. People were paying really good prices for them, so I rang up a few places and spoke to a chap who was prepared to buy them off me. He said he had a pair of Tannoy SRM15X Super Reds for sale that had previously been in a hotel and not used very much, so I bought them off him for £450, less the price of the Lowthers, originally thinking I could use them for small concerts.

"They're good, full‑range speakers with a very detailed natural and neutral sound, which is very easy on the ear — even when you sit close to them. But they're maybe just a little woolly in the lower‑mid range — the 15‑inch woofer seems to be a little bit woolly before it crosses over onto the high frequency horn unit, so they can be a bit deceptive. Having said that, when you mix on them and then hear the resulting sound on other speakers, you wonder what the hell you were worrying about!

"I've heard really expensive speakers like ATC, and had experience of using Genelecs, which are absolutely shit‑hot, and the Tannoys stand up very well, bearing in mind 15" Genelecs are £5,000‑£6,000 a throw!"

You don't appear to advocate nearfield monitoring?

"I've considered that, but just haven't got round to doing it. I like the sound of the big monitors with their deep bass. You feel you're enveloped in the sound, and it's very good for inspiration. If you feel something really warm and nice there, then it gets you going — whereas if I'm faced with the really hard, percussive sound that some desktop monitors have, I don't enjoy the sound as much, and tend to play differently somehow.

"I'm a real sucker for big, powerful PA systems and would really like to design and install them for a living. I was recently involved in putting one in a working men's club concert room. We plugged in a CD player and turned it up to full — 1kW a side, with eight foot bass horns flat down to 40Hz on a concrete floor — with all these old chaps playing dominoes downstairs, we got complaints of the dominoes falling over. Now that's what I call a PA system!"

Do you get a kick out of the fact that you are using different gear to everyone else?

"Yes, because it makes it easier to produce a unique sound. I've made music for videos on a MIDI set‑up, and it comes out different and a lot less individual than my normal stuff. I tend to go overboard with the editing facilties — loads of changes with instruments coming in and out all the time, because it's so quick and easy to do.

"But you can tell that I'm using the same presets and drum machine that everyone else is using and I don't like that. I'm much happier exploring my own stuff. This is what keeps me alive."

The Wonderful World Of Acoustic Modelling

Your last electronic instrument design represented something of a unique breakthrough in acoustic modelling synthesis. How did this come about?

"Around about 1980, I read an article in a specialist computer magazine about experiments being carried out by Kevin Karplus and Alex Strong, who took a computer register, loaded it with random numbers, and then created a kind of cyclical delay to reorganise the numbers, and ended up with a string sound. I thought, 'Hey, you could do that with analogue modules, by adding a delay line and feeding pulsed noise into it.'

"I started by getting my flanger unit with a built‑in delay line, looped it round itself to almost feedback and wired it up to a noise envelope generator — which resulted in a most impressive noise! I couldn't believe it — why hadn't people been doing this for the last 20 years?

"Eventually, I found more articles by people who'd been analysing musical instruments to find out how they worked. Various American and Swiss institutions were also trying to make acoustic models, but they were all working on massive computer mainframe installations, and it took them a long time to compile and write these programs. I thought I could make better use of my time by doing it in the old‑fashioned analogue way — because I already had the synthesizers. All I needed to do was add a few modules, and all of a sudden I was in the wonderful world of acoustic modelling.

"In the early '80s, an American mathematician called Julius O'Smith had used delay lines to make a model of a clarinet. His article was very difficult to understand, because it was all about things like wave guide techniques and involved a lot of mathematics, but I grasped a crude idea of what it was all about. I tried it, and after a few attempts successfully created a clarinet sound myself. I tried to patch it up again the following night, but I accidentally got the delay loop inverted, and out came a saxophone. I was absolutely staggered!

"The essence of it in my version is a delay line system of a few milliseconds, looped round with a limiting and a non‑linear element in the loop. Basically, what happens is that if you have a delay line which circulates around itself in phase, it can resonate a series of all the harmonics, but if you invert it, some of the harmonics cancel out, and you're left with an odd harmonic series, which is a clarinet.

"Although the actual development of the voltage‑controlled analogue delay lines is all mine — I knew what was needed in the way of extra mathematical functions from reading the early experiments by these people and talking to other musicians — anybody with a couple of millisecond delay lines and a modular synthesizer can do it! It's really easy, providing you know how to connect the modules. A physics principle is a physics principle — it doesn't matter whether you use analogue or digital techniques. Control is another matter though!"

What do you use your Acoustic Modelling Synthesizer for?

"Definitely exploration. I started constructing the instrument in 1983. It was two‑thirds complete by 1985, and I haven't added anything extra since about 1990/91. Subsequently, I've continued to experiment with patches, but I didn't get into acoustic modelling just to make an instrument that allowed me to sound like a saxophone or piano. What interests me is that you can take the models apart, rearrange and feed things into them. You can make models that can't really exist in real‑time, but are possible in the electronics world.

"When you make an acoustic model of something — say a saxophone, you're actually faced with the real thing in a different form, yet you don't often see a saxophone with a keyboard running down its side! If one ever materialises, then it might sound like an acoustic model on a synthesizer. The fact remains that even if you have a realistic‑sounding saxophone on a keyboard, you simply end up finding out what a terrible sax player you are. Playing a bona fide saxophone with a reed in your mouth is a totally different ball game to playing one on a keyboard. You have to work really hard just to make it sound like a third‑rate sax player, so you won't find me using those kind of timbres in my music much.

"It's for these reasons that I feel I'm treading a different path to people like Yamaha, who are making commercially‑oriented acoustic modelling synthesizers because they want to sell lots of keyboards."

What disappointed me about the Yamaha VL‑series is that the user level of programming is restricted to performance parameters, and you can't actually get at the models. I think the developers at Yamaha used a Macintosh‑based program to create their models, but the user has no access to this — unless you've got a friend at Yamaha's R&D facility, I suppose!

"Exactly. I've experimented with lots of different models of bells, gongs, drums, clarinets, pipes, flutes, hybrids; all kinds of weird, weird stuff, and you've only got to change one of their parameters and you're into a totally different instrument. It's really quite a task to control them sometimes.

"In a real‑life instrument, there is a very intricate feedback loop between the player and the instrument — something like 100 parameters in a violin, for instance. On a keyboard, you don't have that. So a problem with 'imitative' acoustic modelling arises in trying to prevent the models from becoming totally electronically static, where they cease to have any 'life' in them. There's so much more to explore in this vast area, that to confine activities to simply 'copying' existing real instruments seems such a shame to me."