Lord Of The Rings

I have just acquired a new toy. Here it is:
As you can see, it’s a ring modulator – no, not a means of assuaging the after-effects of very spicy foods (the assumption to which my friend Mr M. P. of Cromer leapt instantly), but a somewhat arcane species of electronic device. The ‘ring’ comes from the ring-like arrangement of diodes all down its left side in its circuit.

Now, read this very carefully, for I shall write this only once. When you feed an audio signal of frequency F into the device, the circuit generates another signal (the ‘carrier’ signal) of unrelated but user-variable frequency C, and outputs … neither of them. What it does is generate two signals of frequencies F+C and F-C and outputs those instead. So, let’s say you feed it a signal of 440 Hz (that’s concert A, pop-pickers)  and dial up a carrier signal of (say) 500 Hz, the device will output a basso-profundo of 60 Hz and a screaming treble of 940 Hz, neither of which are related harmonically to 440 Hz.

In my New Toy, the ‘blend’ mixes the original signal with the output, so you can add just a little for eerie bell-like effects. The ‘freq’ control varies the frequency of the carrier signal. If you set the blend on high and waggle the frequency control the effect is like trying and failing to tune an AM radio. All the other controls regulate another signal generated by the machine – a low-frequency oscillator that modulates the carrier wave, to create weird warbling vibrato effects.

The result, as we musician types say, can vary from beautiful spectral chimes to utter screaming batshit.

Ring modulators have been used in music (for want of a better word) since the 1940s. Stockhausen, not surprisingly, was familiar with them (his Meditation for Wet-Suit full of Lumpy Custard, Stuffed Penguin, Lawn-Mower Engine, Jam Jar, Alarm Clock and Ring Modulator being a particular favourite.) Notwithstanding inasmuch as which the late, great Robert Moog used them in early synthesisers (the company bearing his name still makes them) and thence they leapt into electronica. The BBC Radiophonic Workshop used ring modulators to turn a perfectly normal human voice into the menacing snarl of the Daleks, Dr Who’s number one enemy.

As you can see from the example above, ring modulators are available as electric guitar effects pedals, aimed at the more experimental/brave/barmy of musicians whose tastes, jaded by more conventional fare, seek inspiration of a more clangorous, atonal nature. My guitarist colleague in Stealer, Mr G. S. of Gorleston,  told me a story he’d heard that whenever Jeff Beck – perhaps the most innovative rock guitarist since Jimi Hendrix – got out his ring modulator pedal, all the other band members would hide. But you can use ring modulators on any audio signal, not just guitar. You can turn your voice into that of a Dalek, as I noted above, and so on and so forth in like fashion. You can use them, should you so wish, on your Hammond organ. And thereby hangs a tale.

My musical hero is the organist and composer Jon Lord, until recently the keyboard player of Deep Purple – a beat combo of the 1970s who were among the early pioneers of heavy, progressive rock. Lord’s main instrument was a heavily modified Hammond C3. The extent of the modifications are apparent from some of Lord’s extended solos, which include all kinds of clangs, swoops and general weirdness. Or so I assumed, for many years. When I got to play real Hammonds for myself, I realised that Hammonds can do many things, but the strange effects achieved by Lord were beyond the merely ordinary.

It was only in the past few days that I put F and C together and made (F+C) + (F-C). A bit of googling revealed much interest in a Mystery Box that Lord used to have attached to the top of his Hammond. This … hey, you’re way ahead of me … was a ring modulator. You can see (and hear) him using it in this video of Deep Purple performing their sensitive ballad Space Trucking in 1973 (forward to around 6’05″ to see much swivellage of the carrier-frequency control), and here in this footage from the notorious California Jam concert of 1974 (scroll forward to 2’38″ for complete RingMod madness.)

And so, in my never-ending quest to achieve authenticity in my Deep-Purple emulations, I hied sixth forth twelfth to Norwich yesterday afternoon, not really expecting to find a ring modulator – nay, not even in the many well-stocked music emporia in that fine city, but – well, just hoping. But there, in only the second shop I tried, was the shining box pictured above. Reader, I married bought it, and, later that evening at a Stealer gig, used it to modulate the signal of my fiercely overdriven Hammond XK-1 in our renditions of Deep Purple classics such as Highway Star and Smoke On The Water.

All I can say is – wow.


About cromercrox

Cromercrox is a recovering palaeontologist, author and editor who lists his recreations as writing, beachcombing, playing hard rock organ, supporting Norwich City FC and falling asleep.
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24 Responses to Lord Of The Rings

  1. Bob O'H says:

    I believe there are effective treatments for ringmodulatorsworm.

  2. Steve Caplan says:

    Sounds like the little gizmo can very quickly induce the hearing damage that years in the artillery did to me!

    • cromercrox says:

      I’m way beyond that. Playing in very loud rock bands since my teenage years has given me cloth ears. This means that I can sleep like a baby through domestic disturbances such as screaming children and barking dogs (to which Mrs Crox must perforce attend), and nap soundly on planes and trains.

  3. Benoit says:

    Effects Rule! I am a big fan of guitarists like Adrian Belew, Robert Fripp, Andy Summers, and the such, who will take a nice well-behaved guitar and turn it into sonic chaos just with a couple of effect pedals. I have a nice all-inclusive effects rig that includes, indeed, a ring modulator. It is pretty gnarly stuff. My thing is more the weird synth type pedals, played with an E-bow with lots of echo. What, was that a guitar? Not no mo.

    • cromercrox says:

      Go on, Benoit – what’s in your toy box? I know you’re dying to tell me…

      • Benoit says:

        In my graduate school years, it was simply an Electroharmonix Big Muff, A Roland Fuzz box of some sort, a Roland Digital Delay, run through a Roland Jazz Chorus. My resurrection in mid-life involves a Line 6 X3 live, which incorporates EVERYTHING! I can mimic a Marshall Stack, a Fender Twin Reverb (my fave), and add just about any effect I want (only thing missing is a looper; newer models have one). I can put three effects in a row, e.g. flanger, delay, and fuzzbox. It even lets me do dual amping, which means I can have a Twin reverb and a Bassman at the same time, which sounds fabulous. All that with headphones, so that I don’t wake up the kids or annoy my lovely wife. Really brilliant, and inexpensive to boot. Only thing is the Big Muff preset doesn’t really sound exactly like the real thing…

      • Benoit says:

        The synth part: the Line 6 X3 has these weird effect modules that produce sine wave or sawtooth or other waveforms that can be modulated and sound very un-guitar. With the e-bow to provide a smooth ADSR curve, sounds totally spacey. Great to accompany one’s favorite 4:20 snack.

        • cromercrox says:

          Any chance of hearing some of these???

          • Benoit says:

            There are currently no field recordings of the reclusive Canadian developmental biologist making its call in the wilds of Northern California. I’ll see, once I’m liberated from my current shackles of grant writing, if I can figure out how to connect the secondary grapplegrommet to my Mac. I’ll get my son to put together a string and two paper cups.

  4. There is a way to make a fully passive ring modulator using, essentially, nothing but four Germanium diodes (they must be Ge, as Si require too much voltage, apparently).

    I built one and it didn’t work. I have, however, built a wide variety of fuzz boxes, various passive and active notch filters, and the like. Fun stuff. :)

  5. I’m quite partial to a bit of flange.

    But then, what girl isn’t?

    • Bob O'H says:

      I’ll file that away.

      • John Gilbey says:

        Hang on… Here it is… No, I can’t say that… Nope, that’s wildly inappropriate too… Dash it all, that’s blatantly rude… Heck, No… Blast… Sorry folks, all my rejounders have been failed my GoodTasteFilter (TM) :-(

        • cromercrox says:

          Shouldn’t it be ‘which’ girl rather than ‘what’ girl?

          • John Gilbey says:

            Possibly, but I should have said “rejoinders” not “rejounders”… And I left out a “by” too… Dash it! I blame the chemo…

    • cromercrox says:

      I’m more phased than flanged these days. Years ago I loaned my TC Electronics 12-stage keyboard phaser to a good friend … and now I’ve asked for it back. It looks like this
      (Jon Lord had a Moog phaser, you know.)

  6. John the Plumber says:

    Can you guys help? – I have problems with the woofer on my five string banjo – he keeps cocking his leg on it if I leave standing in a corner – and as to which, does the flange fit on the broomstick or the cauldron?

    • cromercrox says:

      Flanges can be made to fit most things if you have a stilson wrench, some 20mm waste pipe and a tube of mastic.

      Can’t help you with the woofer. I had a cat once that peed on (and rusted) the metal grille of a very expensive speaker cabinet.

  7. John the Plumber says:

    and – was W Runton Cromer the man who started the whole fuzz box thing off by sticking one fiinger in his ear and singing folk songs out tune?

  8. P.S. Very late to the party, but

    Tube Sound Fuzz (from Craig Anderton’s wonderful DIY book):

    And the “orange clipper” (helpfully painted blue), adapted from some schematic I found somewhere:

    Both of them work. :)

    • cromercrox says:

      Excellent. I admire people who make such things. The insides of my Ring Modulator seem horrendously complicated, though…