I was very shocked and saddened to receive an email from Jeff Van Dyck yesterday announcing the passing of his father, Ralph Dyck, on May 20th, due to a sudden stroke (coincidentally on the same date that Ray Manzarek passed). Readers of this blog will, of course, be very familiar with Ralph as the “godfather” of the Roland MC8 Micro-Composer, but to most of the music world he remained an unsung hero. Ralph’s primary background was in jazz and commercial music, and I got the sense that he never quite understood the full extent of the influence of his innovations in the realm of electronic pop music production. Suffice it to say that the Roland MC8 provided the definitive blueprint for the way that we work with modern sequencers. Initially Ralph was a bit tentative about sharing too much with a complete stranger (albeit an enthusiastic one), but I think I won him over by laboriously keying-in a piece of his called “Odd Rhythms,” which appears as a demo sequence in the MC8 owner’s manual.
Over the few brief years that I was in touch with Ralph, we corresponded on a great variety of topics, both music-related and not. He was always very interested to hear of the goings-on in my world, and always very proud to share his story as well as proud-papa stories of his son Jeff’s work. In more recent emails, I had noticed a definite tone of anguish as he struggled with various health issues. He was working on restoring his old synthesizers, but was finding the work increasingly difficult and frustrating. Nevertheless, I’m happy that he was able to have one last go at what was clearly one of his passions in life, and I hope that others will be able to step in to finish the restoration work that he started.
My only regrets are that I never got a chance to meet Ralph in person, and that I was not able to document his story more completely while he was still with us. Being a mere amateur/fanboy myself, I had attempted to find a qualified music tech journalist to take on the task and write a proper article, but nothing came of those efforts. Ralph had even entertained the idea of writing his own memoir, but again, it was not to be. Hopefully what I’ve cobbled together here will suffice for now.
Jeff is organizing a wake for Ralph, which will be open to the public. I personally am unable to attend, but I encourage attendance by any music technology enthusiasts who are able to. Ralph was clearly concerned about documenting his legacy in some way, and certainly got a kick out of knowing that there were people out there who knew of him and appreciated his contributions to the development and culture of electronic music.
Where:Billy Bishop Legion1407 Laburnum St Vancouver BC Canada(604) 738-4142When:Saturday June 15th, 20131pm-4pmThere will be some snacks and a couple of drink tickets per person. Jeff be presenting a slide show at 2pm and opening the mic for speeches afterwards.
Ralph had a great view from his apartment in Vancouver, and he often sent me photos taken out of his window. As an avid hiker, I always enjoyed receiving these. Here’s just one:
Rest in peace, Ralph, and thank you again for shining a light into the future for us.
Ralph sends this brief memoir of making commercial music with home-brew gear in the 1970s:
I earned most of my living in the ’70s by doing films for the NFB (National Film Board of Canada) and commercials for GGP (Griffith Gibson Productions) and directly for agencies like J. Walter Thompson etc. Here’s an account of three spots for CPAIR (Canadian Pacific Airlines, still the best I ever flew to LA). They made the most money for me because I got residuals from them through the union every 3 months, for as long as 2 years!
The first version of CPAIR was interesting in that all I had was a logo, ‘Orange is Beautiful’, so I spent 1/2 an hour at the piano and came up with the full melody, it just flowed out of me. This is 1975 at Little Mountain Sound and I was using Sequencer #2, handmade. I used a lot of arpeggios with a flute-like sound because I didn’t have a good string sound, it was the best I could do at the time. I hired a real drummer, my friend George Ursan but all the rest is my handmade Sequencer and my handmade Synthesizer. The ending logo was sung by two singers, who ended up making more money than me, through ACTRA! They got residuals as well, I got leader’s scale and a fee for arranging plus residuals, still pretty good. (The following spring I bought my BMW 2800 CS coupe, Polaris Silver, what a car, a money sink…)
CPAIR Versions 2 and 3 using Sequencer #2 were done at Singwell Studios in 1976 where I was located for 6 months. Because I forget details easily it’s possible that CPAIR Version 3 was done on the MC-8 in 1977 at Total Sounds West- I forget the timeline. Joani Taylor sang the ‘Orange is Beautiful’ logos. I’m playing a Fender Rhodes on V2, and Roland electronic piano on V3. By this time I was using a Roland System 700 modular, and I used Solina Strings throughout. I had real flute and drums because I had a budget for a change. Those commercials kept me solvent for a year or two.
These were highlights of my commercial life at the time and they certainly used my sequencers, I’m just not sure if the MC-8 was used for the last one. Actually, producing commercials was right up my alley, they had to be very precise in time and message, they were something I could handle, not like writing a symphony!
Some time ago I had an informal Facebook exchange with Richard James Burgess of the band Landscape (among the earliest adopters of the MC8). I had intended to conduct a formal interview with Richard, but never quite got around to it, so I’ve decided to post our original chat here.
Pea: Hi Richard, just thought I’d drop you a line to confess an extreme act of geekery I committed last week… I bought a pristine Roland MC-8 and, whilst setting it up and trying to translate the mimeographed manual, I had my scuffed up “Tearooms of Mars” LP playing in the background. Incidentally, I’ve been chatting w/ Chris Carter who, I understand, bought Landscape’s MC-8 long ago.
Richard: Well geeks unite and rule the world – I just bought my original MC8 back from the person that Chris sold it to. I just had to have it. The very first recorded use with Landscape was on “European Man” which was recorded way ahead of the rest of the album in Red Bus studios. At the time it was called “Route Nationale” and had no lyrics. John L. Walters still has our MC4 but all my System 100Ms were stolen from my house in the early eighties. I would love to get those back. They were modified so I would recognize them if I ever came across them again.
Pea: Wow, bummer about the System 100Ms, but it’s great to hear that you managed to get your old MC8 back! Chris will be glad to hear that for sure! Does it still work ok?
Richard: It’s great to have it back. I don’t really know why I wanted it other than it was such an important part of my life and I just felt that I had to have it. Mine has some wear on it but seems to work. I haven’t tried loading any old data tapes, I have them all. Unfortunately that was the sticky shed era of tape so it’s possible they might need baking or might not work at all. We did keep all our scores which were fully written out so we could reconstruct if we needed to. Somehow I don’t see us doing that anytime soon.
Pea: It would be a fun experiment to bake those tapes and see if they’ll load. As long as you can get one good pass that will load, then you can re-save the data from the MC-8 straight into your computer. Did you score things out on the Roland graph charts?
Richard: We scored everything on music manuscript. We tended to write out all the parts anyway just for rehearsal purposes and then we used to write the numbers for the MC8 above the notation. That saved our butts a couple of times when the MC8 lost all data – most notably at midnight the night before we did [BBC technology TV show] “Tomorrow’s World” demonstrating the MC8. There was a thunderstorm and we had spent nearly all day programming a piece which we hadn’t backed up yet. The MC8 blinked and everything was gone. Fortunately we had written down the numbers as we went so we just sat there with John reading them off and me typing them in. In fact if you listen to “European Man” you can hear a voice mixed low that is reading off a series of numbers and that’s what they are – the MC8 numbers. I think we got that idea from that night.
Pea: I phase-cancelled the center channel so I could hear the voices more clearly: “Control voltage: 39, step time: 16, gate time: 9, available memory: 15 kilobytes, time base: 24, measure set: two zero seven.”
Richard: I can’t imagine anyone figured out what we were doing in the song. We found it amusing but we were all major geeks and geeks weren’t fashionable and didn’t rule the world in 1979. That’s funny that you were able to discern what we were saying. We generally used [time base] 24 because it divides by four and three and is fine enough that we could get the fastest parts we needed in semiquavers and triplets. The major technical hurdle we had on the “Tearooms” album was synching the CR78 with the MC8 (on the track “The Tearooms of Mars…“) and we did it by generating a square wave, recording that and locking the CR78 to that. It was hit and miss because the CR78 had to read every tooth of the square or it would slip out of synch. I seem to remember we got the square wave wrong at first and the CR78 was running at double speed. It was very exciting when we cracked it.
Pea: You also programmed the MC8 for the band Shock, right?
Richard: Oh yes, that was all me. Rusty Egan brought the group and the song and I programmed everything in my home studio and recorded it at Mayfair Studios in South Moulton St. with John Hudson engineering. It was the System 100Ms with the 10x gate modification on the bass line for sure. I did all their recordings and I wrote the rest of the songs with various members and Rusty. He and I wrote the B side in about ten minutes at my house – RERB – our initials – very imaginative – but it still gets played in clubs to this day. I loved this group- they were so outrageous! This was a very fun time both personally and creatively.
Pea: I particularly like the track “Dynamo Beat.” Can you tell me anything about that?
Richard: I viewed Dynamo Beat as my tour de force in MC8 programming. My thought was to do a flamenco guitar part so I worked out what it would be on my acoustic and then wrote the part out and programmed it. It was laborious but I think it turned out really well. I am glad you like it, it is one of my favorites too. I can’t take all the credit for the writing – Tim Dry wrote the lyrics and I think did a great job of capturing what they were about. Apart from the vocals I don’t think there is anything on that track or any of the Shock tracks that didn’t come off of the MC8. I ran the prototype SDSV off the multiplex outputs and everything else was out of the CV/gate outputs through my JP8 (I think I had that by then) and 100Ms
Pea: I’m sure to you it probably seems like a head-scratcher why anyone in this day and age would voluntarily subject himself to the hassles of dealing with ancient sync dilemmas, but for me that’s part of the fun and also it’s a way of working that inevitably produces some idiosyncratic results that you wouldn’t get by doing things the “easy way.” I’m definitely after that metronomic Human League type groove.
Richard: I think the machine definitely influences the result so I don’t see it as odd to want to use the MC8. I have thought about it myself.The same thing applies to analogue sequencers. Like I said, we synched the MC8 to the CR78 by programming a square wave to come out of the mulitplex outputs and then we adjusted the level through a console until it ran the CR78. Most of those old drum machines run on simple square waves with no flags. Getting them to run in the same time is less of a problem than getting them to start at the right time. I used the MC8 in preference to later machines because of the timing. I found early Cubase to be shaky (it’s fine now) and SMPTE Track from Hybrid Arts was very sensitive to processor load. I always liked the timing of the Linn 9000 and I still have mine. I don’t know about the DMX but the 808 should lock tight – it’s only one machine later than the CR78 if I recall correctly.
Pea: I read online that you’re credited with coining the term “New Romantic.” Any truth to that, and if so, is there a story?
Richard: We were messing around with a lot of terms to describe what was going on. “Futurism” was one term that stuck for a bit and that applied to groups like Landscape and Ultravox because of the synth connection and more sci-fi kind of imaging. Landscape consciously created the term “EDM” (as in “electronic dance music”) and we put that on the cover of the single of “European Man.” I was aware that the movement needed a name in order to really catch on. Punk had been happening for the past three or four years and that was losing steam, the Blitz was somewhat of a reaction against the grimness of that ethos and the Blitz really elevated individualism in terms of dress and makeup. There was the heroic element, lots of designers and artists and the whole movement seemed like a reaction against the harsh realities of the time. The Romantic movement represented something somewhat similar in the reaction to the Industrial Revolution and visually “New Romantic” seemed like a good fit. Why that stuck and “Futurism” or “EDM” didn’t is a consequence of what captured the imagination of the media.
Pea: Thanks so much for taking the time to dredge up all this minutiae from your past!
Richard: It was just something I did but I knew at the time that it was a huge breakthrough, once I bought the MC8 and John and I started programming it I felt like we’d caught a huge wave and we were just riding it. I remember giving a speech at the Roland Sales convention in Ealing and I said this is the way all records will be made in the future. I think there were less than a dozen MC8s in the world at the time. They all looked at me as if I was mad, and I thought maybe I had overstated it (and of course it’s not all records), but I smile about that occasionally when I listen to the radio now and over the past thirty years. I just wrote some stuff about [the MC8] for the fourth edition of my book. It’s an underrated machine in terms of the evolution of how we got to where we are now.
Encouraged by the recovery of his Carson Graham synth, Ralph went in search of another synth he made around the same time for the UBC. Bob Pritchard of the UBC Music Dept. confirmed that the synth was still sitting offline in his office, and after a quick consultation with the school’s administration, it was decided to gift the synth back to its original creator! Ralph has been working on the synth for a few months now. Here’s a bit of Q&A about it, along with some pics and sound examples.
Q: Can you tell us a bit about the history of this synth, why it was built, and how you arrived at its design?
Ralph: Well, I don’t know where to begin because I don’t remember very much at all, I have a clear memory of the Carson Graham but not anything detailed about the UBC.
I had been using the UBC Electronic Music lab for about 2 years at that point and had already built my own synthesizer. Cortland Hultberg was the professor there and he and I conspired to make a copy of my synth. He had a way with budgets and would funnel funds to us (Wayne Carr and myself) to add on to the Lab, this time he must have found a bunch of money. I remember that I wasn’t using the Lab at all because I had my own stuff now! He must have had some students that helped in the installation of the synth, my 1st one was completed months before and I learned from my mistakes and made the UBC modules better, they still are! The front panels are 8″ by 4″ aluminum sheets for which I cut slots for slide pots by hand using a nibbling tool. I developed a ferocious grip. The UBC ones, I just noticed recently were done by machine! Obviously I did the Letraset lettering as I had done before, by hand. Here are 2 photos, my VCO from the 1st synth and my VCO from the UBC.
We kept everything as close to my original synth as possible except for the box containing it, I had one made for my own synth but UBC’s lab was circular with an opening so one was surrounded by equipment and the Moog and Buchla had their own cases where as mine (RDE) was mounted in a very nice pre-made oak veneered cabinet, there were gaps at the ends of each module row because of it being made for something else. It’s still in the same cabinet, there was also a satellite cabinet to the left that apparently contained VCFs (which I had made later) and a sub-mixer and additional matrix patch panel. The synth cabinet still has 3 holes for cables to attach to the satellite cabinet. The installation must have been done by students with me being there part time because I was very busy playing with the Paul Horn Quintet and we were traveling a lot. Actually, if any of the UBC students who helped in installing this synth read this blog then they should get in touch with me, please leave a comment here.
Q: Can you give a detailed rundown of the various components and signal flow of the synth?
Ralph: The UBC synth was meant to be an exact copy of my first synth which had…
- 4 VCOs (only 3 now) with Sine, Triangle, Sawtooth, Square, Pulse and Mix plus additional switches to select polarity of waveforms. Sure sounds like a Function Generator to me! (except it’s 1 volt/octave).
- The 2 ranges of the VCO are 20Hz to 20Khz and 0.02Hz to 20Hz. The Sawtooth is selectable as Positive or Negative going. The Pulse Width goes from 1% to 99% and is voltage controlled, 10% per volt.
- 4 VCAs selectable as Exponential or Linear. 6db per volt.
- 4 ADSRs. The first complex circuit I ever designed all by myself, they still work! Controls for Attack, Decay, Sustain and Release and Output level.
- A Sample & Hold with oscillator. There is an input level control as well as an oscillator frequency adjust which has the same specs as my VCO regarding frequency.
- I thought there was a Ring Modulator but it has been removed!
What is missing is the satellite cabinet containing the VCFs, Mixer and 2nd matrix panel. Apparently most of that will never to be seen again along with the power supply.
The synth is really a standard one in that usually for a simple patch one might go VCO to VCO for vibrato modulation, the modulated VCO to a VCA controlled by an ADSR. The VCO pitch might come from a keyboard CV and the ADSR gate from the keyboard Gate out. No filter though, seeing that I’m fixing this up for my son to use I’m going to have to reverse engineer my old VCFs and build copies of them, oh joy! My son Jeff van Dyck is really into digital synthesis but grew up on Modular systems so this will add a different color to the scheme of things.
Q: Can you give a summary of the current state of the synth, ie what works, what doesn’t, and what needs to be replaced?
Ralph: Actually, it’s really amazing! Everything works perfectly! As I said before, VCFs are very necessary and a Sub-Mixer as well. The matrix patch panel is 25 vertical by 20 horizontal so I can’t hook up everything to it. Some patch panel 1/4″ jacks would be easiest by far and durable as well (and cheap!). Jeff and I have to think about exactly what to do. There’s really plenty of room on the existing frame to add extra items. The VCFs will have to be on a perf board wired by hand and controlled with rotary pots, same with the sub-mixer. For power supplies I’m going to use two industrial switching supplies, 60 watts @15 volts and 4 amps. I’ll wire them up for +/- 15 volt operation.
I left the synth sitting on my work table for at least a month and a half while I tried to think what was best to do. Because the matrix patch panel will not accommodate all the inputs and outputs available I had decided to mount 2 panels containing 20-24 1/4 inch jacks for a patch bay and matrix extension. However, I changed my mind entirely and I had the bright idea of going super simple! I would just use the 25 rows of 20 columns to connect the most necessary ins and outs. I decided to make the vertical rows as inputs and the horizontal columns as outputs because there are many more inputs needed than outputs. Here’s what I came up with:
Inputs / Vertical Rows
- VC 1 – VCO 1
- VC 2 – VCO 1
- PW – VCO 1
- VC 1 – VCO 2
- VC 2 – VCO 2
- PW – VCO 2
- VC 1 – VCO 3
- VC 2 – VCO 3
- PW – VCO 3
- VC 1 – VCF
- VC 2 – VCF
- AUD – VCF
- VC – VCA 1
- AUD – VCA 1
- VC – VCA 2
- AUD – VCA 2
- VC – VCA 3
- AUD – VCA 3
- GATE – ADSR 1
- GATE – ADSR 2
- GATE – ADSR 3
- GATE – ADSR 4
- SIG – S & H
- VCO – S & H
- Audio Input
Outputs / Horizontal Columns
- MIX – VCO 1
- MIX – VCO 2
- MIX – VCO 3
- ADSR 1
- ADSR 2
- ADSR 3
- ADSR 4
- VCA 1
- VCA 2
- VCA 3
- S&H VOLTAGE
- S&H GATE
- External Keyboard Pitch CV
- External Keyboard Velocity CV
- External Keyboard Gate
This works out very well and allowed me to do all of the wiring including the power supplies in less than a week whereas it would have taken months to drill new panels with many more cables.
Here are some photos as work progressed, once I was into it, it was vary easy and fast, like I had done this before! Forty years just flew by……
I tried making some sounds to test and all was okay except there was no musical value in any of the recordings I was making of the synth, I was much more interested in the quality of sound:
However, I satisfied all of my concerns when I improvised this little ditty, no keyboard for control, all I had was the Sample and Hold controlling the modules and vice versa.
OK, so this isn’t directly related to the MC8, but it involves Ralph Dyck, and it’s a cool story, and it’s high time that I update this blog, so here ya go!
A couple years ago, Ralph mentioned to me that in the early-70s he had built a couple of custom analog synthesizers for local schools – UBC and Carson Graham Senior Secondary. I attempted to contact the music departments of both of these schools. The UBC music department still had theirs, but the Carson Graham synth was missing in action. Fast forward to a few weeks ago, and I get an email from Ralph that an acquaintance of his in Vancouver recognized Ralph’s handiwork in a craiglist ad for a homebrew synth- it was the long-lost Carson Graham synth!
The asking price was only $75, but try as he might to recover it, Ralph was too late, and it was purchased by a young guy interested in making “bloopy synth sounds.” Fortunately, the shop owner agreed to pass on guy’s contact info to Ralph, and after much back and forth email negotiation, we managed to procure the synth (for a not-too-crazy price), and Ralph has been hard at work trying to get it back into working order (sans schematics). Here’s a brief interview with Ralph, some pics, and some sound clips:
Q: Can you tell me a bit about the history of this synth, why it was built, and how you arrived at its design?
Ralph: I had made some friends at UBC in the music department and they all knew about the synthesizer I had made in 1971. One of those friends was Rob Carr who became a music teacher at Carson Graham Senior Secondary (high school). He was able to get the school to budget some money to build a small synthesizer for the music department. Remember, in those days there were no low cost synthesizers on the market, just big modular systems like Moog, Arp and Buchla. In fact, a friend of mine, maybe that year, bought a MiniMoog and asked me to have a look at it, I’m not sure about the timing. Rob Carr gave me his budget figures and I figured out what I could make for him. He got some money so I could start to buy parts, I had an account at the largest electronics store in Vancouver and bought all of the opamps, transistors, resistors, capacitors, connecters etc. I had a plan and that was to make a subset of my own synth that I had built. I figure that this must have been early 1972 because of where I was living at the time, I had started to work jazz gigs with the Paul Horn Quintet then as well. It was an operation on the cheap, a piano player working in the landlady’s basement breadboarding circuits and testing them. Some of the designs are quite different from the circuits I had already done the year before. I’ll get into that next. I can’t give an accurate timeline for building this synth but it certainly took 3 months or so, I guess. I think that we were all a bit excited by having this system as the first synth in a high school here.
Q: Can you give a detailed rundown of the various components and signal flow of the synth?
Ralph: Once the synth had been delivered to my apartment I could see right away that the patching had been heavily modified by someone at the school, I guess. I’m sure that they wanted to make it more sturdy and professional by using rack mount telephone patch bays, the ring-tip and sleeve types, like the old telephone exchanges. They were built to take a lot of use and abuse.
The Main unit I’ll call Rack 2, because that’s what I’ve called it the past week, Rack 1 is an auxiliary unit. Rack 2 has, left to right, a PreAmp and Low Pass Filter on a vector board, hand wired. I imagine the PreAmp is X10 so, the Filter has 3 switchable ranges and is not voltage controlled, I guess, to cut costs and I hadn’t finished the design of my VCF yet, it was to have Low Pass, Band Pass, Notch and High Pass at 12db/octave with resonance.
To continue, there are 3 circuit boards, 2 hand wired vector boards and one pc board. The vector boards are the Sample and Hold clock and the Ring Modulator. The pc board is the Sample and Hold. To the right of them is the VCA which has a pc board but doesn’t work, probably a bad 741 opamp, static was a big problem for the outputs of 741s, too easy to blow them up. To the right of the VCA is the ADSR Envelope Generator which is the first circuit that I designed without any help from my engineer friends, I was proud of that, done the year before. The same thing I fear happened to its output which was dead. However, by searching on the pc board I found a completely intact envelope signal that was attenuated by a factor of 12. Well, I thought, I’ll amplify it and put it out which is what I did with an LF353 dual opamp. We’ll have to put in a VCA kit to replace the one there and all of the synth will be complete. To the right of the ADSR are the 2 simple VCOs with Triangle and Square Wave outputs, they work perfectly.
Rack 1 is an auxiliary unit that has, left to right, a 6 input, stereo output mixer and a white noise generator, all built on a hand wired vector board. It is followed by a Stereo Hammond Spring Reverb pc board of which the Left channel is dead! Who knows what the problem is, I spent hours trying to make the Left channel work and had no idea what the wiring was, then I tried the Right channel, it worked perfectly the first time! Murphy Lives.
To the right of the reverb is the full VCO which is the type that I built for my own synth. It is .02hz-20hz and 20hz-20khz with Sine, Triangle, Sawtooth, Square and VC Pulse outputs, all waveforms are available separately and mixed together. The waveforms are switchable from ± 5volts for audio and to 0-10volts for control purposes, the VCO is 1volt/octave (as are the Rack 2 VCOs).
On the right hand side of Rack 1 are the 20 holes for my 1/4″ jack socket patch bay and replaced by a 24 connector terminal block which was connected to the telephone patch bays. I wish they wouldn’t have done that. Well, the synth was made for experimenting by the students, I’m sure that it was a huge job to put in the patch bays and rack mountings and making sure that electrically everything was correct.
A simple patch might be to connect the White Noise to the PreAmp and PreAmp to the Sample and Hold input. Connect the Sample and Hold output to the VC inputs of the 2 simple VCOs. Connect the VCOs to the 6 input Mixer and do a Left/Right channel thing with the mixer pots. Connect the Sine wave output of the full VCO on Rack 1 to the VC inputs on the VCOS in Rack 2. Use the ±5volt Sine at a low frequency to modulate the simple VCOs. Play with it! Remember, there’s no VCA so we can’t use the ADSR and the synth will sound all of the time. I almost forgot the Power Supply which is ± 15 Volts at 2 amps, it’s output is exact after 40 years! Here’s some very basic demos of what the functioning components of the synth currently sound like:
Q: Can you give a summary of the current state of the synth, ie what works, what doesn’t, and what needs to be replaced?
Ralph: Everything works, amazingly, EXCEPT the VCA and the Left channel of the Stereo Reverb. The ADSR has a small circuit attached to provide a proper output. A VCA module in kit form would be perfect for this, it must be ± 15volt supply, 6db/volt or linear and ± 5volts audio output. The reverb Left channel can be fixed but it must be taken apart and probed to find out which opamp is dead. Use the Right channel as a guide, it’s the same.
Thanks to Ralph for this quick interview, and as soon as the synth is in fully restored condition, we’ll update the blog with further details, video, sound clips, etc!
Thanks to Zilog Jones and PinWizz for pointing me to a video of YMO in the studio in 1979:
There is a video of YMO members programming [“Behind The Mask“] on MC-8 back in the day! Album credits say “Computer programming by Hideki Matsutake“, so it must be him pushing the buttons in this video as well. The second (moody) piece which they code in video is “Insomnia” from the same album. Third song featured here is called “Solid State Survivor” as the album itself. Perhaps the best known song of YMO is “Rydeen,” but it is not in this video.
You can also see YMO here a couple years later, programming the MC-4:
As a side note, Matsutake also had his own recording project called Logic System. Here’s one track from Logic System’s 1981 LP, which featured lots of MC-8 sequences:
I was very happy to receive an enthusiastic response from Suzanne Ciani to my request for an interview from this synth legend and early adopter of the MC-8! All music and images are supplied by Suzanne, and used here with her kind permission. Please click on the links to visit her website and also to purchase her work!
When did you first hear about the MC-8, and how did you come to acquire one?
Well, I have been reminded that I saw, along with Patrick Moraz and Herbie Hancock, a small demonstration that Ralph Dyck gave at AES in LA about 1978. I was about to start my first album, Seven Waves, and I probably just snapped one up right there and then because it was perfect for the orchestrated approach I was taking on that album. Seven Waves was begun in 1979 and first released in Japan in 1982, then on Atlantic Finnadar in 1984 and then on my own label, Seven Waves, in 1994.
This album represented a synthesis of my electronic background, having for the prior 10 years devoted myself exclusively to electronics, with my classical romantic roots from childhood.
Can you describe what sort of synths or other gear you used with your MC-8?
In those days, I was using the Buchla Series 200, a Sequential Circuits Prophet V, a Synclavier (though I used it more for commercial projects than for my artistic recordings) , a Polymoog, Oberheim OB-X.
Musicians are used to working with computers these days, but in the late 70s this must have seemed like very alien territory to many. Can you comment on how you initially came to grips with making “music by numbers?”
Well, I had spent a good deal of time already working at Stanford in the Artificial Intelligence Lab with Max Mathews and John Chowning on early computer music software and so was familiar with the arms length approach to specifying musical parameters in numbers and punched cards. After the numbers were crunched in an overnight process, out would come the longed for composition! So, the MC-8 provided more immediate gratification, albeit delayed.
To what extent (if any) was your music directly influenced by the process of working with the MC-8?
The excitement of working with music technology was that the constant evolution of the instruments always inspired creativity. With the MC-8, the world of sequencing became much more sophisticated. Sequencing in the Buchla was approached more as a pattern, whereas with the MC-8, I could now program a composed melodic line of great detail and rhythmic variation. I loved that with the MC-8 the strong dependable electronic pulse could be the foundation of the music- and thus very relaxing- but that I could also “romance” the expression to be very feminine as well.
Do you have any interesting or funny anecdotes about working with the MC-8?
When I started recording Seven Waves, for me it was almost a religious experience. I worked all week doing TV music, and then on the weekends would change gears completely, entering a kind of timeless space. Because renting the studio was very expensive, just one weekend was given to recording the tracks for each piece. Even though there was a lot of pressure to accomplish getting all the tracks down, I refused to have stress be a part of the process. My attitude was: “There is nothing to do and everything will get done.”
So, one weekend, as we were setting up the gear in the studio, my assistant realized with horror that he had not made a data tape of the MC-8 info for the piece and that meant that all that pre-production had to be done again in a studio that cost hundreds of dollars an hour! No problem. “There is nothing to do and everything will get done.” So, all the data was re-entered over several hours and on we went.
Did you ever attempt to play live with the MC-8?
Well, on the David Letterman Show one time. I was invited on as a wiz kid “voice distorter,” but was not all that interested in that angle and said I would do the voice processing if they would allow me to play some of my own compositions from Seven Waves. I wrote out some charts for the studio band and prepared some sequences in the MC-8. When I went to push the start button, nothing happened and my brain started racing. What had happened is that after I had set up the equipment before the show, the electrician had unplugged it!! So, all the data had been lost and I made a quick recovery and loaded the data again and everything worked, as you can see from the look of absolute and ecstatic joy on my face. But to my dismay, we were given only about 10 seconds of air time before they cut to commercials! (The MC-8 bit is at 7:08 in the video.)
Can you point to a particular song/recording of yours that represents the best or most involved use of the MC-8?
Yes. The “Third Wave: Love in the Waves” (also know as “Crystal Springs” ) from Seven Waves. The MC-8 (and the MC-4) was the backbone of the production. This was the piece that used the MC-8 almost exclusively and allowed a very sophisticated orchestration with lots of rhythmic control. I worked with Mitch Farber on the production and he added some astonishingly effective lines that took full advantage of the MC-8. Below I talk about the “written accelerando” that helps to build the climax of this piece. (The pieces were called “waves” because the compositional form was a wave, building to a climax and then receding.)
Can you share any tips, tricks, workarounds, hacks or mods that you came up with while working with the MC-8?
I wish at times like this that I had a better memory! We are talking 30 years ago! LOL.
Do you have any old MC-8 program data (either on tape or paper) that you can share?
Yes. I found some of the production sheets from “The Third Wave” from Seven Waves. I have scanned the score of Bars 46 to 50, where you can see the written out melody with the pitch numbers written above. Then there is a corresponding timing sheet that shows the data for meas. 46 and then some shortcuts for the following bars. And then a worksheet showing the Control Voltages, Step and Gate times.
The score is written in 12/8 and you can see in this section all the flexibility and precision the MC-8 afforded: there is a written accelerando from bars 45 to 52 (at 2:30 in the mp3 above), the beat being divided first into 4, then 5, then 6 (just out of view in bar 52).
Note: I entered in the above program excerpt, fine-tuned the tempo to match the original, and played the line alongside Suzanne’s original. Some of the note number data is wrong (resulting in minor seconds in a few places), and a few note durations are off, but otherwise it’s very close. I made no attempt to correct any mistakes in her data. Here you can hear my synth line in the left channel, and Suzanne’s original in the right channel:
Do you still have your MC-8? If so, do you still use it? If not, whatever became of it?
Living in New York City, I never had the space to store any of the hundreds of electronic units that were part of the ongoing evolution of my studio. If someone finds a unit with an engraved C/M on it (for Ciani/Musica), though, it was mine! My studio manager engraved everything.
Ralph sent mp3s of a couple of interviews he did for CBC radio in the 1970s. The first one dates to about 1975, so he’s discussing his home-brew sequencer. The second one is from about 1981, so the examples are from the MC-4 as well as the MC-8:
Recently I’ve been in touch with Ralph Dyck, the man responsible for designing and building a home-brew sequencer that eventually served as the basis for the design of the Roland MC-8. I’ll be posting lots of photos, music and technical documents that Ralph has been very generously emailing me. Posted so far are the user manual and the schematics for V1 and V2 of Ralph’s Digital Sequencer. This is all very important stuff in the history of programmable sequencers. The following is a brief interview with Ralph about his groundbreaking work.All photos are provided by Ralph Dyck, all music is copyright Ralph Dyck and registered by SOCAN Canada.
What’s your background in music, and how did you originally get involved in electronic music?
As a kid I played accordion then piano then vibraphone. I took some Royal Conservatory of Toronto Theory and History then a number of private lessons by professional musicians mostly in arranging. I played Jazz clubs on the weekend then later played night clubs and wrote some Jazz works for the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation).
I designed a simple 16 stage sequencer with simple oscillators, it was weird but fun, we called it “The Monster” (what else?). A friend was studying at UBC (University of British Columbia) and wasn’t interested in the Electronic Music lab classes so he asked me if I wanted to use his time there knowing that I was interested in electronics. So I began a two year exploration every day using the Electronic Music lab, they had Moog, Buchla and some nice Ampex 1/2 tracks. I started to design and build modules that we could use in the studio, voltage processors and things like that.
You developed your sequencer before the “home-brew” microcomputer scene really started happening in the mid-1970s. What sort of background did you have in computers at that time, and how did you go about designing your circuits and the operating system itself?
I knew a fair bit about analog electronics and how synthesizers worked, I had built my own which turned out very successfully. A friend told me about digital memories and D/A converters and that was the spark for me getting into sequencers. I knew absolutely nothing about computers, I was an untrained, fly by the seat of the pants amateur. However, I knew how to pick my friends and I had a couple that helped me immensely, Chris Huntley, an engineer was the major mentor in my life then, also Theo Goldberg, a composer, helped me get a $4000 Canada Council Grant for the Arts. For about a year in 1972 I planned how to build my first sequencer, function by function using TTL logic and Shift Registers for memory. In the meantime I was touring with the Paul Horn band, playing a lot of gigs with them.
I had most of my good ideas at 5AM or in my car. I decided to enter data via a calculator keyboard so I had to learn how to do that, it’s not trivial if you’ve never done it and have no training. Then it was a matter of organizing the memory, 6 bits for pitch, > 5 octaves, 6 bits for time, and 6 bits for envelope gate control and 6 bits for dynamics and voice switching, also, all of the clock control and finally a means of synchronizing tracks on tape, first I used pulse recording but that would feed through to other tracks, it sounded like a buzz saw, then I read about these FSK modem chips with phase locked loops and decided to use them… MUCH better!
The evolution of recording with the sequencer was a gradual affair, my first gig was a TV News theme for BCTV while I was playing on a television series with Paul Horn in early 1973. I had a synthesizer so they thought that I must be able to do it, after all, it was electronic! The only part that the sequencer played was the pink noise through filter drums/percussion and maybe the intro, I’m not sure. The rest was played by hand because I had not implemented synchronization yet! That came within a few months because of this experience. I recorded this in a hallway where they wheeled out the big tape recorder!
Were there any other microprocessor based sequencer applications that you were aware of at the time which your design was based on or inspired by? If not, can you describe how you came up with the basic operating system?
I had no knowledge of any microprocessor system at all, I built up my sequencer a function at a time as they became necessary. Just trial and error.
Eventually I had enough breadboarded modules to put them in a ‘proper’ housing, by then I had most of the building blocks of my system. I had a modular synth that I built so testing was easy and I had tons of drive. I had a vision as to how it should work and built modules until it did! It was all based on logical needs, necessity, you know? The master plan was all in my head, if you saw the schematics you would shake your head, I’ll enclose a couple of them. I only became organized doing my second sequencer.
Did you design the sequencer primarily based on your own musical needs at the time, or were you thinking of a more universal musical application from the start?
The sequencer was based on my needs and Theo Goldberg’s experiments with unusual time signatures, like 13/8 etc. I wanted to make an orchestra.
How did your design come to the attention of Roland, and how was the design of your sequencer altered to become the MC-8?
I built my second sequencer in 1975, it was CMOS based and slicker. I showed it to Gene Trademan who was a Roland dealer, he invited Mr. Kakehashi, President of Roland to come to my studio in early 1976. I showed the sequencer playing to tracks it had already recorded and he said that it was Perfect! We made a deal and he hired the best guy for the job, Yukio Tamada, to design and build a microprocessor based system. I knew about the 8080a, I had an Altair, but I had no idea of how to use one for a sequencer except very simple programs I would toggle into my Altair. In early 1977 Roland wrote me and said that the new sequencer would have 8 separate channels! Wow! I went to Japan and helped in the musical debugging and wrote and programmed some demo pieces, like Odd Rhythms. The MC-8 was based on my method but was much, much more powerful. They had proper engineers to do this not just piano players.
Were there any compromises made in the Roland design where you felt your original sequencer was superior?
There was nothing in the design of the MC-8 that was lacking except very, very small timing issues due to the multiplexed outputs. My old sequencer was just a single channel so it was basically perfect, timing wise. The timing issue is of no concern.
Do you have any interesting anecdotes to share about working on musical productions with the MC-8?
I had a theme to do for TV called ‘The Inventors’, I had one whole day booked into Studio A of Little Mountain Sound in Vancouver, I had no plans and from scratch 14 hours later I had a theme of which I’m quite proud. The show was about inventors and they filmed me after all of this because I was inventing the theme. I was totally exhausted and quite nervous, I survived it all, more or less.
What’s the most complex production you ever realized on the MC-8?
I recorded some ‘Disco’ type tunes for my American publisher in 1978 and they involved many hours in the studio, most of it after midnight. I used real drums and percussion because I could finally afford them. One of the tunes is called ‘Discovery’, the original version was used as the radio theme for the CBC coverage of the Montreal Olympics in 1976.
Do you have any interesting anecdotes about your interactions with famous musicians who used the MC-8?
I worked with Toto on several albums and tours, David Paich and Steve Porcaro were really into using the MC-8 with their Polyfusion synth. I was at David Foster‘s house in LA, we’re both Canadians, we’ve known each other since the ’60s and David asked me if I knew of Toto, I had just heard the name, I didn’t know their music at the tiime. Foster called Paich and asked him if he knew about the MC-8 and Paich said “Buddy! We own two of them!” We got together and became great friends.
In the late 1970s, musicians certainly had virtually no background in computers. What sort of reaction did they have to the “music by numbers” method of programming the MC-8?
They didn’t like it much except Tomita and Steve Porcaro and Suzanne Ciani.
Can you describe any modifications you ever designed for the production model MC-8?
I had nothing to do with the hardware on the MC-8, only it’s core operation.
Clearly the MC-8 was capable of realizing very complex and subtle musical arrangements, yet today it’s primarily known for churning out robotic synth-pop music (ie Giorgio Moroder, The Human League, etc). How did you feel about the way the MC-8 was being used by producers at the time?
Well, it was just another tool in the commercial music biz. I did that as well but I also did some very serious music tracks.
Do you have any favorite recordings produced using the MC-8?
Toto only used the MC-8 in small sections, not whole tracks. Steve Porcaro did a lot of musically interesting parts with it.
When was the last time you worked with an MC-8, and what sort of production was it?
I think that the last time I used an MC-8 was with Toto, maybe for their album ‘Turn Back‘. Other than that I can’t remember.
What became of all your original hardware, including your prototype sequencer and any production model MC-8’s?
All that I have left of my original sequencer is the front panel and some photos. I think I sold the MC-8.
Can you describe any other hardware you designed?
The SBX-80 Syncbox was based on my two prototypes that I had designed with Peter Dunik, we had a world wide patent for it. I also wrote the software and designed the electronics for ‘The Pocket Drummer’ a very small drum machine.
Can you tell me something about the modular synthesizer you built and used with your sequencer?
About my synth, it has 4 VCOs, 2 VCFs, 4 VCAs, 4 ADSRs, a Ring Modulator, a White/Pink Noise Generator, a Sample and Hold, a Voltage Processor and it used to have a very good frequency counter until I dismantled it! All of the important circuits were designed by Chris Huntley, an engineer friend of mine. He would draw a schematic for the basic function that I would need and I would have to prototype it and expand it to make it usable.
I have NO schematics at all. A real shame! I have a PC layout for the VCO but that’s all. If you really want to know all of the nuts and bolts of it, in 1970 I was working at a night club called Isy’s Supper Club, we had a quintet which played for shows and things. Times became difficult and Isy, rather than closing, decided to put in strippers. the band was cut to 3 (sax, piano, drums) but the Musicians Union (AFM) stuff stayed the same. (I’m drawing a small pension from them, for which I am very grateful).
I was also spending my days at UBC learning about electronic music. That’s when I decided to build my own, I certainly couldn’t afford Moog or Arp. I much preferred ARP for their specifications which were spot on, I thought. I had to breadboard every circuit and even designed my first ever circuit, my envelope generator (ADSR). We were renting at the time, Jeff was 1-2 and I was supporting my family and my habit (synthesizers) by playing a strip club at night! It took a year to design, breadboard and build. one year exactly! How I did it I’ll never, ever know. I made 2 other synths for school music departments. It took me much more than a year to learn how to use it. My first Jobs were making Radio Station Logos. For these I got $25 apiece. Big money. I’m including some here…
The MC-8 was succeeded by the MC-4, and then a long line of sequencers in Roland’s “Micro-Composer” series. Do you have any thoughts about the development of sequencer technology as it relate to your initial design contributions?
Well, in electronics, everything advances, the only thing that the subsequent gear had in common with my sequencer was the method of use, the basic idea of the system.
Are you still making music today, and if so, what sort of equipment are you using?
I’m making music of a sort, my son Jeff van Dyck is doing the music now in the family and he helps me whenever he’s in town. He gave me some great gear to make my old synth work again, I have an original prototype MIDI to CV/Gate converter, 4 channels, made by a guy in Australia, it works perfectly. Jeff also gave me an E-MU 0404 USB interface which also works great. I also have a Yamaha P-80 piano and a Roland XP-10 synth. I’m trying to get my old synth working reliably but the connections are a real problem, it’s almost 40 years old!
Ralph’s friend Akiko translated this for us:
Hideki Matsutake is explaining what is MC8 and how it was used in the Yellow Magic Orchestra (YMO)’s concert tour in ’80.
In this video, he says as follows
0:00 “Is there anyone who has this?” (laugh)
0:06 “There’s someone raising his hand….must be our staff.”
0:12 “This was VERY expensive in those days….as much as you could buy a car.”
0:17 “You could have bought two Carola. ‘Cause it was 700000 yen then.”
0:24 “We’ve experienced many things with this…”
0:27 “As for YMO, it was MC8 and the combination of units after all.”
0:31 “Ah yes…it was… really….. beyond human power.”
0:38 “But it wasn’t perfect.”
0:40 ” As you know, it sometimes became out of control.”
0:50 “Today, it has data in it. In those days, the data was transferred from cassette, but since it is not stable, I used MD.”
1:03 “We went to Masayuki’s office to test it the other day.”
1:15 “We worked on the original data cassette at that time.”
1:20 “That’s right.”
1:21 “And then, we really had a hard time.”
1:25 “The cassette, this one as well as the other we brought, the pinch roller was gone. So it didn’t read data…and it was hard after that too.
1:33 “But we were able to read it anyway.”
1:35 “As for *****, did it take about 3 minutes to read the data?”
1:39 “Well….yeah, it did. It took as long as the playing time.”
1:50 ” From here, automatic playing is sent.”
1:55 “Now, let’s listen to the sound in it”
2:06 “Which tune is this?”
2:10 “You don’t know, right? It is playing backwards.”
2:22 “Today you’re going to run this MC8 here.”
2:28 “Right. With this one called Immu(???) and sequencer, I will play ****(a song title?) live.”
That’s it. I couldn’t understand completely what he was saying. Those I didn’t understand was probably song titles and names of instruments. Anyway, there must be the video in which he plays/runs MC8 following this, but I haven’t looked for it yet.
- Roland MC-8 Sequencer Malfunction w/ Sequential Pro-One Synth
- Making a Roland MC-8 Cable
- Low Serial Number “Blue Meanie” MC8
- RIP Ralph Dyck, Sept 28, 1941 – May 20, 2013
- Ralph Dyck: My Commercial Life using my handmade sequencers prior to the MC-8
- Interview: Richard James Burgess of Landscape
- Ralph Dyck Reunited With Another Long-Lost Synth Creation
- Ralph Dyck’s 1970s Home-Brew Synth Rescued from Pawn Shop
- 1972 Newspaper Article about Ralph Dyck & His Modular Synth
- Giorgio Moroder w/ MC-8 & System 700 via Sound On Sound Magazine
- Pea’s MC-8 Electro-glamour shots
- Ralph’s SYNCBOX – Roland SBX-80 Prototype