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.