Memory Boy

A quick look at my own Last.fm and iTunes history tells me that I have been listening to more electronica music than I have i ever before. I wouldn’t call it surprising, but I sure do acknowledge my overcoming of insecurities at the absence of guitar based music. Over the last few months, I also dabbled on the basics of music theory as well as music production. The last few months have particularly changed the way I viewed the idea of making music.

Around the same time, I made a move from Magix Music Maker, a software that I had been using to do basic productions over all these years, to a more robust Digital Audio Workstation: FL Studio. I’m going to be really frank and tell you that it took me over three months to get a hang of this package and to understand what one required as a pre-requisite in order to work on it.  During my previous semester at college, I signed up for a course in Digital Signal Processing in attempts to fully comprehend the fundamentals of signal processing such as Sampling, Normalization and Filtering and their significance in Audio Prodution. Over summer, I spent my spare time out of a month-long internship, in exploring FL Studio with a trial and error approach, hence opening up to the kind of electronica projects I’d always dreamt of doing.

Sometime in January, I had installed a Visual Programming interface called Pure Data and learnt to program some of the common audio effects of day and age such as reverb, delay and also managed to accomplish comparatively advanced tasks such as sampling and randomized sequencing.

Meanwhile, I also bought something else that tangentially connects to the framework: An analog delay pedal.

Creates spaces in between spaces.
Creates spaces in between spaces.

After a year of using my Tele and utilizing the most of its clean(which is rad, by the way) and distorted sounds using an in-built processor in my amplifier, I figured it was time for me to explore a direction that would help me make better use of a traditional instrument such as the guitar in making electronic music. Enter Memory Boy.

Electro-Harmonix Memory Boy – Analog Delay Unit

For those of you who don’t know what it is, Memory Boy is an analog effects pedal. Analog units, as opposed to their digital counterparts, still use devices that were invented in the 20th century. With the advent of micro-processors, controllers and embedded systems, music effects units have undergone a radical change in their structure, function and size. Over the years, multi-effects processors were born with a number of digital production capabilities such as saving your customized effects combinations into memory stick and importing it on a later date, thus making live-setups for intricate arrangements so much easier. Today, it is even possible, using VST instruments, to connect your guitar unto a laptop and emulate all the effects you’d like on it.

Now, that’s all very nice. But the real electronic music that fascinated me were from the likes of Tangerine Dream, Pink Floyd and such psychedelic rock of yester-years. But let alone electronica, most of the other guitar driven bands that I listen to extensively used delay effects. Analog music, so to speak.

Besides, as an Engineer majoring in Electrical and Electronics, I was interested in the working of an analog unit, more so a delay unit as it is the simplest and probably the fundamental unit in a modern digital processor – may it be for any purpose; not just music. Also, analog devices are known to give a warmer sound. This is because digital units use a process called sampling, where the signals are chopped into tiny bits and then processed as data packets. This causes loss of some amount of subtle details.

Of course, analog devices have their own set of challenges such as power consumption, extreme sensitivity and lack of versatility. But it all comes down to a matter of taste in the kind of sound one wants to hear out of their instrument.

Anyway, things did not go as planned when I finally received Memory Boy in my hands in July – I had issues with the power adapter. Since I’d bought the pedal in the US, it came with an adapter that supplied 9.6v to the pedal, designed to draw from a 110v supply. The Indian supply system gives out a voltage of 220v, which is double the system voltage that my pedal was made to handle. I had to wait for about a month before I found an adapter that was compatible. In the process, I also went so far as to try the adapter I got from the US on an Indian system, try with a multi-meter, incidentally short-circuiting its output ends and blowing it up.

So that’s the story of how I managed got to plug the pedal with my guitar and have a go.

There and back again: Feedback Loops

EHX Memory Boy chiefly works over an elaborate feedback loop with four knobs to control its parameters. A feedback loop basically takes a part of the output signal and feeds it back to the input, hence intensifying the output over time. I know that for a fact because it was an important part of a 4-credit course at college. But there’s more to it. The pedal also does what is called Modulation.

Modulation is the process of letting one waveform vary according to the properties of another waveform. In this case, you can modulate your guitar signal with a square-wave, or a triangle-wave. Here’s what each of the knobs do:

Delay: The delay knob is used to control, as the name suggests, the delay time between the input signal (which is a note from the guitar) and the feedback sound(the recurrance of that note). The delay knob has a pretty wide range from 30 to 550 milliseconds. It basically varies the frequency of the square or triangle wave that the guitar signal is modulated with. From a utility perspective, this is the knob you want to turn up or down when trying to keep up with the rhythm of your drummer or backing track.

Depth: Depth knob varies the amplitude of the square/triangle wave, thus varying the extent to which the guitar signal sways or strobes when you use the pedal. From a mild vibrato, the pedal is capable of producing poppy rotary notes close enough to that of the tremolo effect.

Blend: This is a knob that is still an enigma to me. However, to the extent I’ve used it, it gives you a control over the extent to which you want your effect to be audible. Turning the knob to zero gives you no effect at all. Turning it high up gives only the delayed/modulated signal. Most popular songs use a spot somewhere in between that gives a multi-layered effect with the clean tone playing on top and the delayed notes over it like ghosts piling over each other.

Feedback: The feedback knob varies the gain of the part of signal that gets fed back into the pedal. It lets you decide how long you want the delayed notes to keep piling. For small feedback values, you might hear just the clean and one delayed note, while for high values, you might hear the delayed notes coming on forever until they fuse into each other along with noise building up into a dark cloud of sonic awesomeness.

Takes in Math, buzzes like fridge and sounds like detuned radio.
Talks in Math, buzzes like fridge and is like a detuned radio.

The pedal has two toggle switches: One can be used to choose between the square and triangle wave that I’ve mentioned above; and the other to use it either in chorus or vibrato mode. This switch acts as a coarse setting for the delay rate that one would need. While Vibrato gives higher rates of delay, chorus mode gives very low rates (or high delay time, in other words), hence giving a space-like sound even without any reverberation effect connected anywhere in the setup.

Question of Possibilities

Electro-Harmonix Memory Boy is capable of creating a number of different sounds depending on the combination of modes you set it in. Besides, it also has a provision for attaching an expression pedal, which can be used to control either the depth or delay parameters, hence giving a more dynamic and  crazy sound. I can only imagine what a blast it would be to use this on stage.

After a week of exploring and experimenting, I can now reproduce the following sounds with my guitar/pedal setup: The outro of Karma Police(Radiohead), intro of Souvlaki Space Station(Slowdive), main riff of Kid A(Radiohead), intro of Strawberry Swing(Coldplay). In a fit to make something out of it, I did record a few samples. I haven’t found any place for them in tracks yet, but I’m sure they’ll see the light of the day sometime.

And hence, another unit joins my little arsenal of music making equipment. Though my priorities are a little different, I’m sure le Memory Boy will see a stage, and get stepped on someday in the future. I can already see it as an important member in a number of electronica music arrangements and potential projects that I have in mind. And that day will indeed be great, both for me and the pedal.

Now let me hurry back to the other place, ’til my next post,

Sumanth.

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3 Comments

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  1. You have a really good pedal. Sad, I can’t find it anywhere. I wanted to read more about pedal stuffs – modulation, depth, feedback. And luckily I found it straight away in your blog.

    Very informative blog, and good review. Will love to try the pedal.

  2. @themoonshaker – Well, you should!
    I spent hours trying it in the shop and then spent a few months reading up on it before actually deciding to buy.

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