Dial 1-800-Moogfest on a Synth Made of Vintage Telephone Parts
Techno DJ and recording artist Antenes talks about her telephone-based modular synthesizer, The Exchange.
Photos by the author
As in years past, Moogfest 2016 features all sorts of experimental art installations and instruments. Some of these creations function simultaneously as both. One of this year’s standout installations was techno artist and DJ Antenes’ The Exchange, a modular synthesizer built from vintage telephone switchboards. During the festival’s four days, and for another two weeks at the Carrack in Durham, North Carolina, Antenes (a.k.a., Lori Napolean) is showcasing this unlikely modular synthesizer’s dazzling capabilities.
In Napolean’s The Exchange setup, the bottom switchboard module (a Western Electric PBX-555 private branch exchange switchboard) contains two Music From Outer Space sequencers that essentially mirror each other. This switchboard controls the Werkstatt and an array of tabletop switch boards that create sounds like “robot sounds” and distortion. The top switchboard, which contains modules by Ken Stone and Music From Outer Space, is mainly a percussion synthesizer full of filters and processors, allowing Napolean to input sounds like pink noise, white noise, crackle, grain and other random outputs.
Napolean tells The Creators Project that she was inspired to create The Exchange after realizing that the circuitry of telephone switchboards mirrored that of modular synthesizers.
“Some of the switchboards were designed for modularity so that there would be an exchange that would allow for growth for the town,” Napolean explains. “Back in the early days of the telephone there might be a certain number of subscribers, and when more people found out about this new groundbreaking invention in communications they could sign up, so there might be extra jacks, plugs and just physical space to install machines.”
As switchboards and the telephone industry grew, multiple switchboards were lined up side by side inside an entire room. Different circuits were then routed so that one operator could have access to them all. Napolean considers these setups to be akin to modular synthesizers, with the operators acting a bit like early synthesizer programmers. This influenced the modularity of The Exchange.
“I really look at the whole analog studio as a modular entity as long as it has control voltage inputs and outputs,” she says. “So, for example, I already had a couple of analog synths, so when I started to build an analog sequencer, and I embedded that within a telephone switchboard, I was able to integrate that with the existing synths.”
The next module that Napolean built was a sample and hold circuit. (Sample and hold is a circuit that samples the voltage of an analog device at any given moment and holds it at a constant value for a minimum amount of time.) This allowed Napolean to alter her analog modular studio setup in a new way. The idea being that the more modular pieces she can create or acquire, the more the setup can be a self-sustaining modular system.
“The beauty of it is the freedom of being able to use electricity to combine or modulate or control any parameter with any other parameter,” Napolean says. “So the structure built into the telephone switchboards consists of a lot of jacks and plugs that are still used in audio technology today because, in fact, they were invented for telephones.”
Here Napolean is referring to the tip, ring, and sleeve design of patch cables used by telephone operators and, later, by modular synthesizer engineers and players. This design is also found on more commonly used devices like headphone jacks in either ⅛ or ¼-inch sizes.
Though switchboard interfaces were modular, for The Exchange, Napolean had to add a lot more knobs, sliders and potentiometers to mutate them into an aesthetically pleasing modular synthesizer.
“In the switchboard realm there was a lot of digital inputs, so I had to create an analog spectrum from 0 to 10 volts that could be controlled by knobs or sliders,” she adds. “In that case I would modify the existing equipment by either gouging out the wood to create some space for more sliders and knobs, or in some cases I just used the built-in equipment and created these hybrid jack-potentiometers. For some inputs, instead of using it for audio, I use it for analog information over a range just by wiring the two things together.”
At her Moogfest performance, Napolean created beautiful, evocative ambient textures and drones. Layers moved in and out in long meandering passages, with subtle rhythmic sounds trickling beneath it all. To create the various rhythms Napolean uses a lot of LFOs (low frequency oscillators) and sample & holds to create repetition.
“One of the beautiful things about techno is that there are continuous cycles of repetition but they don’t necessarily have to be tied to the clock,” says Napolean. “So if you put a kick drum in then, that is a metronome as a reference point, but you can fall in and out of that reference point. There is this push and pull by having other controllers that create periodic changes that might not necessarily be the same length.”
“For example, one of the modules I have in there is a modified Moog Werkstatt-01, so I added a quite a few new LFOs and telegraphs using a 555 timer circuit,” she adds. “That creates undulations that are controlled manually and are not really taking any clock in. I enjoy that because it’s creating a drone that feels like it is continuously changing because all of the elements—even though they are cyclical—overlap at slightly different times as they repeat, so it creates something very complex just by introducing many sequencers and controllers.”
When asked about The Exchange being presented as an art installation at Moogfest, Napolean says she enjoys dancing between fields like art, engineering, and craftsmanship but also music, producing, and DJing. Festivalgoers seem to appreciate the dance between fields as well. In fact, at the Moogfest installation, Napolean met some people were formerly switchboard operators.
“This woman came in who was this long-distance switchboard operator in 1968 and 1969, and she brought her husband and their friends, and her husband was a switchboard installer,” Napolean recalls. “So they were telling me this story of how he met her: he was installing a switchboard and he fell in love with her. So there is this beautiful archival quality of conversations that happen when I’m just in a gallery and people are sincerely interested in preserving and appreciating the historical aspects of it.”
“That said, the primary impetus is music, so I also do live techno sets in more of a warehouse or club setting,” she adds. “That is why I have tabletop modules with smaller switch boxes that might have been used at a hotel or doctor’s office, and they are nice and enclosed so that I can bring those out and set them up in a club or warehouse. In that case, it’s dark in there and the focus is primarily the sounds.”
In a techno setting, the use of the telephone modules is about creating a dance catharsis, not so much setting the stage for conversations that Napolean has in gallery settings. But she insists that she needs both. Let’s hope that Napolean keeps building out The Exchange with new modules to satisfy both art and music lovers alike.
Click here to learn more about Antenes’ modular system The Exchange. Listen to recordings made on The Exchange by Antenes.