No doubt inspired in part by the wealth of real-world imperfections captured for his historic Novachord library, Hollow Sun's Steve Howell has once again donned his boffin's garb for this ongoing Music Laboratory Machines series. However, with MLM he's drawn on his encyclopaedic knowledge of synthesis to come up with totally new invented instruments. These start their lives with samples from vintage and Cold War electronics, and are then fitted with retro graphic interfaces featuring scuffed panelwork, animated glowing tubes and knobs, and switches that beg to be tweaked.
The first release in the MLM series is Oscillosine — and what a cracking start! With a GUI based on an old Tektronics oscilloscope (I remember using these myself in my white-lab-coated electronics days), and samples from a 1960s Hewlett Packard sine-wave oscillator, the central scope window offers eight sine-derived waveforms, from pure to atonal, while the versatile multi-wave LFO lets you add life and movement to them in a host of different ways.
Even better, the FM/Ring Mod section can add metallic overtones, while the battery of effects offered by most MLM synths, such as chorus, phaser, rotary speaker, distortion, echo and convolution reverb, greatly increase their richness and versatility. Oscillosine's sounds range from soft instrumental steam to distant chimes and vibes, blips and bleeps to broken computers, but all have bags of character and personality. They could have come straight from a session at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, yet at £5 would leave you enough loose change for the bus ride home.
As its name suggests, TriOsc has three individually tunable oscillators, this time sourced from a rack of sine/triangle generators from the '50s, along with a novel LFO featuring three mixable waveforms and plenty of other modulation options. The resulting warm tonal clusters have loads of movement, but the masterstroke of this design is the 'Serendipity' button that generates random new sounds. This module excels at background drones, quirky tonebar organs and a wealth of sci-fi effects, and is, again, just £5.
The Interference Generator simply offers a wide variety of background grunge ranging from mains and fan noise to vinyl crackle, rumble and hiss, all with plenty of options. You won't be reaching for it on every track, but once in a while it will add the perfect historical 'feel' and for just £4, I can see a lot of musicians adding it to their arsenal.
The £4 Organa started life as a 1950s Hohner Organa 30 electric reed organ, but the MLM version enhances the original with drawbar mixing of its various wheezy timbres, plus original fan noise, and offers a wide variety of sounds, from accordion to rich pads.
In a world awash with somewhat lifeless commercial samples, the Music Laboratory Machines stand out for their curious and rather unique charm and their gorgeously eccentric interfaces. They are all innovative and supremely affordable. Miss them at your peril! Martin Walker
Downloads: £4 to £10 each.