The Role of Analog Shift Registers in Electronic Music

Originally published at: The Role of Analog Shift Registers in Electronic Music | Boing Boing

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As an engineer, I find this verbal description of analog shift registers to be a bit confusing and erroneous in places. But that’s not surprising, as this device is much easier to explain in pictures than in words.


Regards! I always enjoy your comments on the BBS, Nixie. (You’d commented some time back on an episode on radios that I also really appreciated)

I’m guessing I know where you find the content in error, too. Ha. I have a slightly uncontrolled visual/narrative context for how systems work. And the additional metaphors one encounters, like Bucket Brigades, etc, make things sound more metaphorical to physical things. It’s also been years since I’ve worked with any circuits, so the understanding of things has shifted into metaphor at some points. I think that does help others understand the concepts, though.

Howabout this? I think this sort of Serial in/Serial out Shift Register diagram best explains how an ASR works as music modules:


What’s missing is an output at each ABCD stage, but that’d be easy to modify, I’m figuring.

It’s true that the musical application isn’t precisely how Shift Registers work. These things are always adaptations, even if they use similar analog circuits. Compare the original Serge notes from the 1970s that seem more focused on the Sample & Hold of the waveform:

Cheers, EP


Ok, where’s @74hc595 ….

I realize the 74-series chips are digital, but still….


Would Debussy be sporting a Ned Kelly beard and neck tatts too!?

I love your stuff as it reveals the history behind the sounds.

Bought a Microfreak experimental synth a while ago and believe the manual was worth the purchase price alone… a solid instruction on synthesis as well as the historical roots of each of the engines e.g. didn’t realise that the DX7 and FM had it’s origins in the late 60’s.

Apart from a collaboration with Plaits open source modular they released a vocoder update. Practically the use can wear pretty thin quickly but the whole story behind the vocoder being an end to end voice encryption device by the military is absolutely fascinating. Would love to hear you take.

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Ha - I’m just seeing Debussy with a sleeve of tattoos and a man bun! Maybe one neck tattoo, a single word or something, but it would always be hidden by his large coat collar. He’d dollop note shapes into the foamed milk on the cappuccino.

Who wouldn’t buy decorative foamed milk from this guy!


“The customers disappoint me but I love the cinnamon sprinkles. And the chirping of the birds.”
— C Debussy, Store Manager Starbucks Location #467

One disclaimer: I absolutely LOVE Debussy’s music. Sorry to his ghost to be making the coffee joke.

Thank you so much!

What a fun question! Yeah the Microfreak is awesome. I want to hear that vocoder! I’m presently reading/enjoying this book on Vocoder history which partly discusses the military background: “How to Wreck a Nice Beach” which goes into a lot of the history. It’s presently out of print but I was able to find a copy for $30. The title refers to a misheard vocode for “How to Recognize Speech” - Pleasurable book cover and recommended, though the used prices are a bit high right now (on Amazon for $95 which is too much, for example) But a great looking and reading book!

As for the Microfreak and DX7 tones. If you’re willing to add on to your FM path, I’d recommend an iOS app called KQ Dixie.

And this video:

The reason I suggest is your comment on how much you value the manual. The Dixie is a great software synth (I use it in the show often) but it’s an even better history capsule. It can read any DX7 preset, of which, as bands often made presets for performance and then backed up onto a disc, there are millions of possible time capsules for how bands worked with the DX7. The Dixie visualizes them so you can look at each operator and other configurations… Check out this video, as there are links in the youtube description to download thousands (literally, hundreds of thousands, potentially) of DX7 preset packs from the web and load it into the Dixie app. For example, I found the entire touring presets for Toto and all the different settings for the Africa and Rosanna song on on my iPad now. (not emulations or tributes but the actual band files) - I view the Dixie as a kind of microfilm viewer for older presets. It also has some of the nicest DX7 bells around. I like the bell chime of a DX7.

Also: So much to do with that Arturia stuff! I might be wrong but I think the Microfreak is a two operator synth (with all that wavefolding etc) as opposed to the DX7 having six operators and strictly FM. But you could get the Dixie for $5 and download a bunch of presets and use those as an idea board for working with the Microfreak. Or if you enjoy the manual as you suggest, the Dixie app is a great way to just read up on operator combinations and it will play very well with the Microfreak.

Arturia’s keyboard controllers are awesome for interfacing with eurorack, too. I never use my Minibrute much anymore for sounds but it I have a stubborn synth voice that needs a 10-15v gate to open and I send midi into the Minibrute and its CV out in the back converts the midi to a strong 12v gate and converted pitch and it is a great controller for that synth. So even if you move beyond the Microfreak for what you’re doing, you’ve invested in a solid Midi-CV keyboard controller, including the arpeggiator. You can sync it with other things with the Clock In, too. With Midi in/out, you could sync the Dixie with the Microfreak and have a pretty fun experience. Something like the iRig Midi 2 would get you there as an interface.

Here’s a great 25 page thread on the Microfreak with all sorts of commentary and ideas: Arturia MicroFreak - MOD WIGGLER

I wasn’t aware of the DX7 going back to the 60’s! Thanks, wow - now I know what I’m going to be reading up on this afternoon! Thanks for the cool comment and question.

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Thanks so much for the detailed response and I reckon I’m about to lose a good chunk of my life exploring the Dixie!

Apart from the value of the Microfreak manual I’ve heard it is one of the cheapest ways to get a Buckler style controller for a modular setup. I love the front end interface and the mod matrix even though you don’t get to chunk leads into a real patch bay.

I have a couple of Volcas but balked at getting their DX7 FM version as it is perhaps only just a little less complicated to program than the original. The DX7 was/ is notoriously hard to program given the menu diving on the tiny inbuilt screen so pretty much everyone I knew using one back in the day was trading those special patches that put their stamp on the 80’s.

I once met Chris Abraham from the Australian experimental group The Necks and was interested that he was taking a deep dive into FM algorithms. Check their music out if it isn’t already on your radar!

If you don’t know his stuff already Junky XL was one of the original sound designers for the DX7. I go for the best I can afford at the cheapest price but this guy is the bi polar opposite, but hey he has a history with synths:

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Dang - I had no idea about Junkie XL’s history with the DX7, I have to look into that! Thanks for that.

Nice to meet you, I appreciate your observations - I have to ask, and pardon me, but did you mean Buchla style controller? I’m not familiar with Buckler but there’s so much out there I miss a lot of things. The Microfreak does absolutely mimic some of the gestural strengths of an Easel. It’s just a great piece of gear to learn things on. It’s definitely a step up, in a natural way, from the Korgs, but follows a similar path. Nice work - you made a great choice with that.

If we’re talking Buchla, there’s also the Sensel Morph, which is a USB/MIDI touch surface. They have a Buchla overlay that maps similar to the older Buchla Eagel controller. I seem to remember these being affordable but maybe no longer: Current pricing looks silly (in the $900 range for controller and overlay) but fun to learn about: NAMM 2019: Sensel Morph Buchla Thunder Overlay MIDI and MPE controller - - The overlay by itself is still available for just $60, too: Sensel Buchla Thunder Overlay for Morph - Perfect Circuit — Perhaps as a collectible decal!

Junkie XL recently sold off all of his gear last summer. There was some discussion that he’d reached a point where so much gear was preventing creativity instead of inspiring it. I understand that. A lot of people jumped in on the sale. View the SOLD filter from Reverb for some interesting pieces, some of them very unique: The Official Tom Holkenborg aka Junkie XL Reverb Shop | Reverb - You can probably learn a lot about synthesis just by following your eye on any module that catches your interest and looking it up.

Even though there was some GREAT ITEMS available, I avoided the sale because of all the smoke that HAD to reside in all of those great modules. I’ve seen images of him smoking cigars and cigarettes for years around that stuff. Cue to 30:04 of the video below. Never sell any gear if you smoke in front of it, or be explicit about it. It just chokes the stuff and is unfair to future buyers.

C’mon, Junkie!

Oh - btw - I love The Necks! Beautiful textures of sounds within the “Three” album (only one I’m familiar with but very impressive) This album kills. So cool you had an opportunity to talk with them. I love this record:

Cool talking.


You say Buchla I say Potatoe!
I actually have a bit of difficulty with spelling but hey tomato.

I started watching Junky XL before I realised he was the guy behind the Elvis re-mix and the film scores. Good to see a geek make good. Same deal with Trent Reznor.

I kinda have to keep pushing the ‘musicians’ around me to see the legitimate cultural history that electronic music has had in the past 100 odd years… Theremin being kidnapped by the KGB was the forerunner to Moog and all that.

My jazz guitar teacher back in the day said there was only two styles of music: East coast and West coast, perhaps myopic and a tad racist when you look at it but I think the Electronic and Modernist music of 20C is worthy of a re-telling of the history. Thank you for being part of that and sharing.


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Thanks so much - very genuinely! - History and culture of these things is definitely one part of the purpose of the show, so your assessment of it is extremely gratifying.

Ha - just for clarity - I was in no way aiming to correct you - For a minute I was genuinely curious about Buckler controllers! There’s so much unknown out there, especially today. Very convincing sounding brand name. I even googled it then figured Buchla was the intent. But make mine a Buckler!

And yes, RIP Leon Theremin. What a terrible dishonor they did to him.

Thank you again - Have a very cool evening, E

I guess I don’t understand why the Turing Machine, the most popular shift register in Eurorack, and the one a lot of digital modules that do shift registers, like o_C (Ornament and Crime), are based on, was not even mentioned in that list.

Good and correct observation! - Thank you - But all of those examples, Turing Machine included, are digital shift registers. That would be an entirely different discussion.

You’re describing a list of DSR’s. Ornament & Crime is included there as an example. And man you are right to bring up the Turing Machine, too. I adore that thing.

By the way, have you ever checked out the 1910 essay where o_C got its name? Fun to read.

Just to elaborate:

I love Tom Whitwell’s Turing Machine, but it is code. You can edit it or break it by adding a zero somewhere.

Analog Shift Registers are analog circuits. Fun irregular things, whose interactions are based more specifically on capacitors, resistors, the occasional chip, the temperature in the room, etc.

For example, I can port the Turing Machine onto Peaks by just flashing the firmware. But if I wanted to turn that same Peaks module into an ASR, I’d have to rip out a lot of its guts to change the signal path. It likely wouldn’t be possible. That’s where emulation engines like o_C (or Dead Man’s Catch, linked in the first sentence) are so cool.

Digital Modules are incredibly wonderful. They are easy to distribute and modern.

But the idea here was to discuss how basic ideas of computer shifting (going back to tube era) is still present with ASR. The exchange of electricity to create an event, and all that. It’s funny and it’s definitely pretentious, but that’s what’s so mechanically/functionally nice about ASR’s. You can’t say that with the digital ones. Those are emulatably nice. Different methods, different results.

With humor: No one can likely tell the difference in a recording if someone uses an ASR or DSR. But they’re different.

Appreciate your point, too! I’d love to do a whole show on digital shift registers. Turing very included.

(Not said to be disagreeable, just clarifying - and welcome to the forum, too)

Gotta get in quick as this topic will end soon,

Re Necks, went to my first gig at The Corner hotel in Richmond, didn’t get the deal of what their music was about and made a total dick of myself by ordering a beer at the bar and lighting up a cigarette with a a zippo lighter… all of which had an entire audience at a rock punk venue turn around and glare daggers at me… fair enough… as I walked in all I heard were the cicaders on a hot summer night and inside was The Necks playing the softest percussive sounds… I bought this album at that gig:

Chris Played with this band, in the early 80’s)but not on this song… it kinda shaped me (and perhaps The Smiths!?)

Also SPK were the crossover local band that had a big influence:

Saw these guys in StKilda the night before I went to the Talking Heads ‘Stop Making Sense’ gig being filmed for the film by Deme. All I gotta say is there was a lot more blood spilled at the SPK gig. But then, fuck, Stop making Sense!!
Way off the track around ASR electronics but forgive me for posting a bit more love of modern music from my home town… can still smell the smoke machines in the club… this was everywhere in clubs, good beat and you can dance to it:

OK… Ive now watched the tube about the Dixie box and want it but I don.t / cant handle 1000 banks of 32 sounds I need someone to aggregate these amazing sounds . This is what the original DX7 was all about… It was never a programmers synth it was a players synth… can’t even imagine someone setting up the wheels on a filter for live performance.

I reckon {take it for what it is} a curation of the best most usable and iconic sounds from the DX7 would be a good thing. Yes it may be a nostalgic nod to the 80’s coming from late 60’s technology but there is way to much patches for any living human being to hear. Curation I tells ya! Curation!!!

Oh man - Just as a follow-up - Yep! Totally agree with you here. Maybe a good way to view Dixie is to see it as a library or storage room for these many many (many, many) individual banks. Definitely a great task for a Digital Librarian to put together something into categories with context. I’m just really thankful it keeps the information alive (key point: readable) and still in distribution.

But I’m as attached to this idea as you are - Someone should put together a reasonable finding aid. If there’s an Information Science grad students reading this, this would be a great grad project.

Other side of the coin: I love digital hoarding. So the idea of random discovery with these thousands of banks (many of them with nondescript titles) is pretty fun to browse without any intention on something specific. A random button on Dixie would be great, for example. The 32 banks at a time is a bummer of a limitation, too. Being able to tag presets with your own notes in the app might also be a good update.

Further agreeing with you: The real problem today is our abundance of all the information available in the world at a moment’s ask, but very little regard for caretaking much of it. There’s interesting political discussions on how this makes us less informed and less curious (and spoiled with everything, less inclined to effectively protest or organize, or even learn) - But then, look at this, it’s the entire preset history of the DX7 on a single download click! Ten minutes later: Now what was I talking about? :stuck_out_tongue_winking_eye:

Thanks for the great video links (and expanded Necks story!), we share similar taste in music.

Looking forward to dipping into those curated youtube examples! - Rockin’, E

OK got Dixie and now have DX FM goodness in my kit, Gotta say thanks but there goes a healthy amount of time doing such things as stepping outside into the ‘real world’

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Oh man, what can I say - That fake synth world is better than this fake real world, maybe! - Totally hear you too. Enjoy the FM Bell tones!

Final point: Just to bring this back on topic, it looks like the DX7 is based in part on a set of Shift Registers. Ha! Fun read with lots of pics for further ‘real world’ avoidance:

Cheers, as well - E

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