At PIFcamp 2021, a gathering of makers, hackers, tech freaks and nature lovers in a semi-remote location of Upper Soča Valley, beepblip (Ida Hiršenfelder) is going on an expedition to the vast universe of retrofuturist sound with the extensive construction of a do-it-yourself analogue synthesiser —The Music from Outer Space Sound Lab ULTIMATE. As PifCamp is conceived as a collaborative DIY and DIWO workshop, I will be joined in my effort by the amazing friend Sean McIntyre. I sincerely hope that in mutual effort we will be able to build this beast of a synth in a week-long marathon of soldering, wiring, calibration, trouble-shooting and above all playing and jamming.
The synth contains all the basic and some extended building blocks for modular synthesis. The project is a tribute to the legacy of the late Ray Wilson, who generously shared his circuits and knowledge with the DIY and DIWO community, while maintaining the ethics of non-commercial and attributed work. He published a detailed description of the Music from Outer Space Sound Lab ULTIMATE construction from soldering to calibration. During PifCamp, we will follow in his footsteps and try to venture into a retro analogue sound nebulae.
With surgical precision, calibration and selection of rare and accurate electronic elements the synth contains three musically punctual voltage controlled oscillators (VCO), white noise generator, active mixer, voltage controlled low voltage filter (LP VCF), voltage controlled amplifier (VCA), attack release envelope generator (AR Env Gen), two low-frequency oscillators (LFO), repeat gate generator, sample & hold and attenuator bank.
In times when projections for the future are becoming increasingly dystopian, when time has shrunk to the immediate reality, which is doubtful in itself, I wonder what kind of projections a retrofuturist sound will produce combined with an idyllic natural environment along the emerald green Soča river. Retrofuturism is not nostalgic, but requires a reassessment of technological development.
“By assembling modules, source elements, and elements for treating sound (oscillators, generators, and transformers), by arranging micro intervals, the synthesizer makes audible the sound process itself, the production of that process, and puts us in contact with still other elements beyond sound matter. … The synthesizer, with its operation of consistency, has taken the place of the ground in a priori synthetic judgment: its synthesis is of the molecular and the cosmic, material and force, not form and matter, Grund and territory. … to make thought travel, make it mobile, make it a force of the Cosmos (in the same way as one makes sound travel).”
— Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus. Capitalism and Schizophrenia
Making MFOS Sound Lab Ultimate and Expander at PifCamp
I intend to documented the entire process of building this fantastic retro-synth in 6 videos:
- Casing and Assembly,
- Troubleshooting and Calibration,
- MFOS SoundLab Ultimate Expander Jam Session with Reverb,
- MFOS SoundLab Ultimate Expander Jam Session with Arturia Keystep.
I warmly recommend that you read all (I mean really all) materials published by Ray Wilson Music from Outer Space Sound Lab ULTIMATE before embarking on this project. Spending a few days reading and studying will save you a lot of frustration with troubleshooting later. There, you also have detailed schematics with modifications, wiring and most importantly a detailed account of troubleshooting and calibration. Building this synth by studying the materials and building it from scratch should take about 60 to 80 hours of your time.
Etching your MFOS SoundLab Ultimate PCB
You may wish to buy Sound Lab Ultimate from MFOS for 67€ and Sound Lab Ultimate Expander for 60€. The same retailer also offers what you will need for +/-12 power supply: an unpopulated MFOS Wall Wart Bipolar Power Supply Bare PCB and 12Vac 500mA UK Power Supply Wall Wart and above all the unobtanium Metal film 2K Ohm 1/4W +/-2% T.C. +3300 PPM tempco. If you wish to go through the painstaking etching of double-sided PCB, here are links to vector graphic PCB matrix for etching which I drew from Wilson’s pixel graphics: MFOS-Sound-Lab-Ultimate-PCB-side-1.pdf or MFOS-Sound-Lab-Ultimate-PCB-side-1.svg + MFOS-Sound-Lab-Ultimate-Expander-PCB-side-2.pdf or MFOS-Sound-Lab-Ultimate-Expander-PCB-side-2.svg. I decided to get the prefabricated bare PCBs mostly for conservation reasons as etching PCBs creates more toxic waste than industrial-scale production per item.
I warmly recommend you go through schematics published on MFOS in detail. List of details that I will have to pay attention to when soldering:
Casing with CNC Machine and Silkscreen
Boulding parts for casing with aesthetic features like vector graphic matrix for DIY PCB etching or beautiful casing created with a CNC machine and silkscreen front-panel.
- CNC files for aluminium panels: MFOS-Sound-Lab-Ultimate-Expander-front-panel.pdf,
- 2x CNC wooden side panels.
Troubleshooting and Calibration
MFOS SoundLab Ultimate Expander Jam Session with Reverb
MFOS SoundLab Ultimate Expander Jam Session with Arturia Keystep
MFOS SoundLab Ultimate Expander Jam Session for SoundCloud