I came across AV artist, Joshua Ellingson, on Instagram last April. I had bought this 1985 portable Yokohama TV off eBay and I was pulling my hair out trying to figure out how to connect anything to it, as it didn't have your ordinary RCA hookups. After doing some digging I ended up on Joshua's profile.
My first thought was... wow! Not only does this person create amazing AV videos with his synths and retro television sets, he also posts instructional videos so you can learn how to do it yourself! From teaching you how to build your own "Pepper's Ghost", to creating wonderful oscilloscope art, Joshua takes what in theory would seem complicated to many, and breaks it down to be accessible.
As it turns out, I needed about four separate components for my Yokohama TV; and as it also turns out, other people think Joshua's stuff is great, too. His instagram profile seems to keep growing and it's no surprise. I couldn't recommend checking out his art and how-to videos enough.
So, of course, I do what I always do when I'm a fan of someone and asked if he'd be down to to something for Synth History!
Without further ado, if you're into synths and old TVs like me, you're gonna love this recommends feature.
Exclusive photos provided by Joshua Ellingson.
Without further ado...
1. Moog Subharmonicon
The SubH is many things. It’s an instant melody maker with two polyrhythmic sequencers, two oscillators, and four sub-oscillators. It’s got Moog’s famous ladder filter, a quantizer, and (even though it never works on mine) it has MIDI-in. I like to set the VCA attack and decay super wide, start a slow sequence, and just let it fill the room with washes of mono synth magic. Sequencers one and two can work as interesting drum sample triggers when I’m stuck for what to do with a beat. Each oscillator has square, saw, and triangle waves, so that can be fun to add a little buzz in the mix. It was hard to choose between the Mother-32, DFAM, and Subharmonicon for this list because I love them all individually and they work so well together. They were my first synths and I’ve worn out the filter on two of the three so far. I have a Moog Mavis too and it has its own charm. The SubH is the big winner for creating unexpected melodies and just that it has so many beefy oscillators.
2. Befaco VCMC in a 4MS Pod20
I love the Darth Vader styling of Befaco modules. The rubbery red-tipped sliders and clicky buttons on the VCMC are very satisfying. I use it mainly to control my mixer in VCV Rack but it can do anything that a regular MIDI controller can. The VCMC can also convert CV from my eurorack modules into MIDI information that I use to manipulate things like video samples in VDMX, so I use it a lot. The module sits on my desk in a powered 4MS Pod20 mini-case but sometimes I take out the VCMC and use the enclosure to temporarily house my other modules. Like, sometimes I just want my theremin module by itself next to an old TV. The 4MS Pods come in different sizes and I think they’re a great way to avoid investing in a giant case.
3. Erica Sample Drum
I’ve only scratched the surface of what this crazy sample module can do, but I love what I’ve been able to get out of it so far. It can playback samples chromatically on two different channels, so you can make a whole bank of drum sounds and then sequence it to play each on different notes. It comes loaded up with a bunch of jungle breaks if you’re into that. I sometimes use it to record in some Moog sounds or audio from vintage video clips. Then, I can mangle and mix the sounds however I like with sequencers and modulation. I’m pretty vanilla most of the time with drum samples but you can add effects like reverb and delay within the module and there are options for effecting things like envelope and amplitude. As a bonus, you can sort of use it like an oscilloscope when previewing incoming modulation.
4. Doepfer A-178 THER Theremin module
I’m definitely not a trained musician, so the best I can do with a legit theremin instrument is make haunted house sounds. The A-178 THER module, however, puts out CV instead of audio, so I use it as modulation for filters, VCAs, etc. There’s nothing quite like interrupting an electromagnetic field to modulate synth gear. It’s the closest thing thing to a magic trick in my setup.
5. Tidbit 0hp patch cable accessories
TidBit Audio makes incredibly useful adapter add-ons for patch cables. They’re basically mini-modules that plug right in to patch points for things like attenuation, mixing, filtering, switching, and more. They are very useful for semi-modular gear that could use an extra attenuator, passive mult, or whatever. I have a drawer full of them.
6. All the TVs
I collect televisions, surveillance monitors, oscilloscopes, and other screens for my video art making habit. Of these different types of screens, my favorites are consumer televisions from the 1970s. Black and white CRT TVs from that decade are neon-bright, there’s a specific texture to the image, and the cases are often very inventive. A television was a piece of furniture back then and so TVs were designed to match a person’s lifestyle and fashion sense. I have a Zenith “Sidekick” television that I’m very proud of. The case is covered in denim with rivets and stitching to make it look just like a pair of blue jeans. They really don’t make TVs like that anymore but I’m glad that these are still around and often in working condition.
7. RF Modulators with channel options
For putting video on old TVs, I use a string of adapters to step back in time from HDMI to composite video and then into the TV with an RF signal via coaxial cable. The biggest link in the chain is the “RF modulator”. Usually these devices come with two channel options (usually channels “3” or “4”) but some RF modulators allow for dozens of different channels to pipe in a signal. This is very helpful when one of my TVs prefers to get a signal on channel 8 instead of channel 3 for some reason. This is more common than it sounds and I’m glad that these gadgets exist. Sometimes, you can even find RF modulators with built-in HDMI conversion but that’s just showing off.
8. Domes, Magic Eraser, and 3-Step acrylic polish
I use a lot of clear domes in my artwork. Most of them are made of acrylic and the bummer about acrylic is that it scuffs easily. For this reason, I always keep a fresh Magic Eraser pad laying around along with some sandpaper and set of 3-step acrylic polish. This system isn’t just for domes, though. If you scuff or scratch your record player’s dust cover, you can use very fine grit sandpaper with water to start. Then, I recommend water with the Magic Eraser pad before moving on to the 3-step acrylic polish. By the last step, your acrylic should be looking pretty great. If not, back up to the Magic Eraser step and try again.
9. VDMX live-performance video software
I use VDMX on my Mac to control video on old TVs and inside the domes as “Pepper’s Ghost” illusions. VDMX has been around for a long time and it’s very quirky. For example, there’s no “undo” feature but maybe that helped me pay attention while I was learning how to use it. Anyway, it’s been great for manipulating videos with MIDI and live audio. VDMX also has easy to use screen-spanning capabilities for running video across multiple TVs. The interface is very modular and every button and slider is configurable to work with MIDI and other modulation sources. I often use it together with VCV Rack for sequencing linked audio/video samples.
10. VCV Rack and Nysthi sample modules
If you’ve never heard of it, VCV Rack is sort of like a synthesizer emulator for desktop computers. Need another VCA? Copy and paste dozens of them! There are loads of great modules from VCV and many independent developers as well. It is kind of gateway drug to a eurorack gear habit, but I really enjoy it.
For me, some of the most useful modules are the samplers by Nysthi. They are way more powerful than they need to be. Some of them are like mini jukeboxes and some of them can record and playback CV for complex envelopes and weird modulation. I send audio samples and MIDI from VCV Rack to my hardware case with an Expert Sleepers ES-9 and a CVOCD (aka Hexinverter Mutant Brain). I can also send MIDI and audio directly to VDMX from VCV Rack as well.
11. Audio Hijack and Blackhole virtual audio interfaces
I capture audio from many different sources on my computer. Some sounds come into my computer from my modular. Sometimes I want to capture or re-route sound from one specific application or website. It’s helpful to have a system to help manage that, so I use Audio Hijack. It’s simple and powerful with lots of helpful tools to manage and re-route audio. There are even built-in effects like reverb but it also supports some VSTs like Valhalla Supermassive.
Along with Audio Hijack, I use Blackhole virtual audio interfaces to route wound between applications. These utilities show up in the software as though they were connected physical USB audio interfaces. For example, I can choose “Blackhole 16ch” from my audio output in VCV Rack and it will also appear as an input option within my video software, VDMX. Then, if I send a kick drum to channel 3 of the Blackhole interface in VCV Rack, it will show up in channel 3 in VDMX to wiggle my video. It’s pretty great!
12. The Prelinger Archives at Archive.org
The Prelinger Archive is a growing collection of educational films, vintage advertising spots, home movies, and more. The archive focuses on ephemeral work in the public domain, so it’s a great place to find vintage video that exists mostly outside of popular culture and that’s available for re-use. I discovered it when I was looking for material for my video experiments. I wanted to find vintage black and white footage that would look nice on my black and white televisions. The Prelinger Archive has been such a generous resource and I encourage anyone to check it out and support them!
Everything I do needs some kind of thing to stick onto another thing to work with a thing. I have drawers full of adapters for audio, video, and power. I have adapters for the ends of cables for odd or obsolete connectors. It’s a necessary evil of this AV art pursuit, so I couldn’t live without them. I don’t love adapters but they’re everywhere in my work.
14. Stuffed Animals and taxidermy
Working with electronics and noodling with synthesizers is a lonely passion. I think it’s best to have as many things with faces around at all time. I have a stuffed chicken, a piranha, some soft sculptures, and a myriad of figurines and plush toys strewn about my studio. I If you live alone and don’t have pets, then these things can help. That way, you’re not just talking to yourself. You’re talking to your inanimate friends.
Synth History Exclusive.
Photos Provided by Joshua Ellingson.