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The Light-Controlled Thingamagoop and Other DIY Synth Favorites from Moogfest

Our favorite homebrew synth picks from Moogfest 2014's Modular Marketplace.
Images: DJ Pangburn

At Moogfest's Modular Marketplace, attendees at the electronic music festival in Asheville got to browse some of the best indie and homebrew analog and digital synthesizers. Participating vendors equipped their tables with synthesizers big and small, and headphones so that festival-goers could demo their wares.

The Modular Marketplace served as a great counterpoint to the finely finished Moog synthesizers that populated the festival, and legendary synth makers roamed Asheville giving talks and demonstrations. After demoing a bunch of the gear at the marketplace, I decided to send a dispatch of some of my favorites.

Bleep Labs Nebulophone with stylus keyboard

One of the more interesting vendors at the Modular Marketplace was Bleep Labs. Their analogue and digital hardware, based on the Arduino software, are about the size of guitar effects pedals.

They might look like neat gadgets, but these aren't just toys. Dan Deacon used The Thingamagoop 2, a light-controlled analog and digital synthesizer, to augment his Durational performance at the Center for Craft, Creativity & Design—an experimental ambient show that also featured a software-controlled player piano and an eight-speaker system.

Bleep Labs' light-controllable Thingamagoop 2

“The amount of light hitting the photocell can be directly used to change the pitch of the analog oscillator, or it can be passed through the digital effect modes to make all kinds of different sounds,” the Bleep Labs' documentation reads. I tested this bad boy out before I dropped in on Deacon's performance, and it's indeed a great little hybrid synthesizer.

Bleep Labs also offered a rad little drum machine called The Bleep Drum; The PicaPaso, a light-controlled synth based on Forrest Mim's “Atark Punk Console”; and The Nebulophone, a digital, light-controlled synth with a stylus keyboard onto which you can touch or attach an alligator clip. All synths are Arduino-based.

Make Noise modular synthesizer

Make Noise are Asheville-based analogue synth makers, and they make some really cool modular synthesizers. On display were a few different synths, including the Shared System, which is used by artists on the Make Noise record label. These synth systems are housed in keyboards, so festival-goers were able to noodle on them in proper fashion.

Girl playing a Make Noise System 0

Make Noise also offers a variety of standalone analogue modules, so that people can build their very own synthesizers. All Make Noise modules are made to Eurorack specifications, which specifies the dimensions, power supply, and signal standards. Likewise, they recommended that anyone interested in using individual Make Noise modules or entire systems can use Eurorack-specific MIDI keyboard, such as Kenton Pro Solo or Kenton Modular Solo keyboards.

Brand New Noise voice recorders

If there was one piece of gear that stole my heart, it was Brand New Noise's line of wooden voice recorders. It's essentially a really simple type of homebrew vocoder. Lil' Mib and Mr. Purple both feature record and play buttons and a knob that controls pitch and speed. These little recorders also feature a raisable red flag that lets people know they've got a message. Basically, you speak into the little wooden box, which resembles a face, hit record and say something up to 30 seconds in length, then play it back and tweak the pitch and speed for "endless fun."

Brand New Noise mastermind and beard enthusiast Richard Upchurch

Brand New Noise founder Richard Upchurch told me that he plans on releasing a DIY kit so that anyone can build their own voice recorder. At first blush it may seem too simple to use for music, just mere amusement. But with a DIY kit, people could use them in both recordings and live performances to create various modulated vocals. Now, if there were a loop function, then we'd be getting somewhere. Perhaps the DIY kit users will add this functionality, giving Reggi Watts yet another looping possibility.