Interview – Mystic Circuits

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This interview is from Issue #4 of DivKid’s Month Of Modular back from January 2016. 

This month I spoke to Eli from Mystic Circuits to find out a little bit about him and his modules.

Hi Eli, great to have you answering some questions here in the magazine. It’s been great to get to know you as we’ve started to work together first with the VERT video and the SWITCH video to follow in the future. The first thing people may be thinking (as I did) why the name change from Circuit Shaman to Mystic Circuits?

Hi Ben, thank you so much for the support and feedback.  I came up with the name ‘Circuit Shaman’ going out of high school when I already knew that I wanted to make strange synths.  By the time that I actually got around to using the name it turned out that someone had a patent on a line of guitar pedals that included the word “Shaman” in them.  Without boring you with legal details it seemed like I would have been able to fly under the radar for some time but then eventually the name would open me up to liability.  I spent roughly 2 months coming up with another name which I knew that I could trademark (the name Mystic Circuits is trade marked) to avoid this headache in the future.  Really I want to spend my time designing, not dealing with legal issues.  I look at the name change as a sort of blessing in disguise, at first I was upset because it delayed the module release but now I am glad because Mystic Circuits is really a better name.  Also as someone who spends a fair amount of time in the dreadlocked world of electronic music festivals, referring to oneself as a ‘shaman’ can come across as self-important.

Stepping backwards, how did you get into synths in general? And how did you get into DIY and ultimately creating your own modules? 

Back in high school I was in a punk band that towards the end of our career was actually pretty good, for a bunch of 14 year olds anyways (https://soundcloud.com/behindglassshadows).  We recorded a studio album and were getting booked for shows that we didn’t even know about until a friend asked, “Are you going to that Behind Glass Shadows show tonight?”  Talks of touring was in the works and things were looking up, then simultaneously everyone else decided that they weren’t into it anymore.  After years of diligent band practices and playing obscure venues!  Well I bought a copy of fruity loops after that because I knew that my computer would never flake on band practice or decide to quit the band haha.

From there my music got more and more complicated.  Bands like Hella and the Locust were the rage at the time and I was all about math rock.  I finger tapped my bass along with these really complex beats I wrote on the computer.  This song is probably one of the best that I have ever written, it’s a shame that I never recorded the bass track to it: https://soundcloud.com/60s-residue/babbling.  At one point I wrote a song that was so hard to play I asked myself, “Why do I spend all of this time writing this music when the same effect could be accomplished by improvising random noise?”  Since I couldn’t afford much in the way of guitar pedals I would raid thrift stores and circuit bend little kids toys.  I once made a giant bass made on a plank with bungy cords that had a contact mic built in.  Another thing was a wireless microphone made out of a baby monitor.  I think that I had about 20 feet of range before the signal turned into white noise, which was of course a feature!  I was so terrible at soldering its amazing that stuff even worked. I would plug everything in a circle, I barely ever used a mixer, and of course I had a silly costume.  It was lots of fun.  Here’s a good video, no costume unfortunately https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ehrbPQtGGNI.

At the time I lusted over stuff made by Peter Blasser (Ciat-Lonbarde), Trogotronic, 4MS, that weird kind of stuff.  I knew that it was what I wanted to do, build these kinds of crazy boxes that make sounds no one has heard before (and a lot of fart sounds in between.)  I toyed around with going to school for some kind of experimental music degree but settled on Electrical Engineering instead because I figured that stuff would be harder to learn on my own.  I chose UCSD mostly because Miller Puckette teaches there (I was doing a lot of Max/MSP and Pure Data coding at the time) but also the engineering school there is very highly regarded.

Anyways I suffered through that and by the time I could feel my hands and feet again all of the companies that I was really into were building Eurorack modules!  Trogotronic and 4ms had re-released some of my favorite designs in euro format and Ciat-Lonbarde was using banana jacks instead of screws that were connected by alligator clips (soon to jump into Euro as well).  I think that one of the biggest appeals of Eurorack to me is that the electronics and design of the panel are the only 2 things you have to think of, power supply and case are already handled by the customer. So instead of making something that I know can survive being thrown at the ground full-force I can bolt a circuit to a piece of metal and the customer handles the rest.  I still plan on releasing guitar pedals and stand-alone synths but in the meantime Eurorack is a good stepping stone to get there.

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Where did the idea for the VERT module come from? 

Well the first module I did was the Turing Machine “Bytes Expander”.  As a sort of challenge Tom Whitwell (the Turing Machine’s designer) said in a Muff Wiggler thread that he would send some circuit boards to anyone who made the Turing Machine play time signatures other than 8 or 16.  Someone used some rotary switches to achieve the effect, and while it sounded good the lack of CV control was not satisfying to me.  In the thread I asked if a microcontroller solution would be sufficient and Tom said no.  I then went about making the Bytes expander, which has almost as much circuitry as the Turing Machine itself.  I built the whole thing using CMOS chips and in the process discovered this cool analog-to-digital converter chip called the “ADC0820”.  It basically converts an analog input to a digital number, but instead of sending out the digital value serially (aka as a set of pulses on one wire) it sends out each bit on a separate wire.  It’s the kind of thing that could easily be done on a single microcontroller but instead I did it with 6 chips.

Back then I had so many ideas for modules, I would work on one for awhile and then get bored of it and move to another, always doing work but never finishing anything.  At one point I said to myself that I had to come up with a module for which I could have a working prototype in a day and decided to see what feeding random voltages into the ADC0820 would do.  I was pretty happy with the results and even hooked it up to my Turing Machine expanders at the time to see how it would sound. You can actually hear a track that I made using the first prototype on breadboard and hooked into the voltages expander here (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cCfLyihfBKA).  That’s the point where it sort of hit me that any module that makes 8 gates can easily host a Turing Machine expander.  Many more are coming.

And how about Switches? 

I was thinking about how with the Turing Machine the ‘Voltages’ expander is basically like a sequencer where you can have more than one step active at a time.  If there is only one bit active in the Turing Machine buffer the voltages expander will work like a normal sequencer, but if 2 bits are active it will start adding together different steps of the sequence.  This is why changing one slider on the voltages expander effects a whole bunch of steps at a time: the slider value is being added to the output whenever the bit is active.  This got me thinking along the lines of “what if there was a sequential switch where more than one switch is active at a time.”  I wanted the switches to be bidirectional but because of the way that the summing circuitry works this simply wasn’t possible.  However with the addition of a “multi-purpose expander” access to each switch will be given individually and bidirectional patching will be possible.

So what’s coming up from Mystic Circuits this year? 

Oh geez I wish that I could tell you everything but there are a few noteworthy things that I can tell you.  First is that the Spectra Mirror, which I previewed at NAMM last year but hasn’t gone into production yet, is quite possibly about to start production.  I’m always apprehensive about saying “this is the last prototype” because I will inevitably wire a switch backwards and then while I am fixing that decide to add a new feature/ tweak the response of a certain part of the circuit and then 3 revisions later I’m like “this is the last prototype”.  However there are no switches on the Spectra Mirror so I am pretty sure this is the last prototype.  I am also planning on releasing a set of utility modules for DIY because you can never have enough VCAs.  Hopefully eventually there will be a complete “Mystic Circuits” system that is all DIY.  I am collaborating with Eric Fox of Foxtone/ Black Market Modular to build some ColourCV boards for the wonderful “Colour Pallete” module.  I am hoping to slowly work in some digital modules.  Right now everything is analog mostly because I enjoy routing circuits more than coding, not because I am some kind of purist.  Also I want to start doing some cheesy 90s style infomercial advertisements for the modules.  Oh, and guitar pedals.  Meh, I guess there goes another year with little to no social life.

That’s it for this month’s interview. Be sure to head to the Mystic Circuits website by clicking HERE to check out his modules. Eli also offers them as DIY projects with panels/PCBs and build documents for those keen to break out the soldering iron. In case you missed it check out the VERT video by clicking HERE.

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