Tachyons+ Transmits #4: Exploring the Analog Drum Circuit Pathways of Delptronics

Posted by on April 10, 2015

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Possibly the best analog drum machine created in the past few years was not made by a big famous company out of Japan and not stocked at the local corporate music store. You would have to do a little digging into the realm of DIY electronic crafting, the scary and bizarre world of modulars, ala Dr. Frankenstein, and the secret society of circuit benders sacrificing thrift store ghosts for holy distortions. Or you just look up ‘Analog Drum Machine’ in Google, and its #3 in the search results.

If you’re a fan of vintage drum machines in the vein of 70’s-80’s crispy, oomph-zzz warm style sound, more in a class with acoustic drums than pure tronic soul. The LDB-1 built by Delptronics in Austin Texas is worth seeking out. All analog circuitry mixed with a digital pump for built in sequencing. We recently hovered into the world of Delptronics mastermind Mickey Delp to ask him questions about his creative gear work and their surrounding atmosphere of electronic inspiration. I’ll start off by sharing a small demo video I made myself for the LDB-1…

Who is Mickey Delp and Delptronics?
I’m a guy who likes build electronic instruments. I am also a musician, and I eat my own dog food, as they say. Every instrument I perform with is hand built by me. As fun as it is to perform, I get the most satisfaction from seeing and hearing other artists using instruments I have built. Delptronics is my company which sells eurorack modules, drum machines, stomp boxes, and other unique electronic instruments.

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How did you begin doing DIY electronics?
I started with electronics as a kid. My first circuits were simple things with light bulbs, motors, and switches. As I got more advanced, my favorite thing was making circuits that made noise. The way I learned, in those pre-Internet days, was from books, especially the series of Engineer’s Notebooks by Forest Mims, and the CMOS cookbook by Don Lancaster. Oh, and Popular Electronics magazine too. But then I discovered computers in high school. I ended up going into a computer programming career, and electronics became an occasional hobby thing.

Four years ago, which was two years after I moved to Austin, I met a great bunch of people at a monthly workshop called Hand Made Music. Their names might be familiar to you. They were the organizers, Dr. Bleep (Bleep Labs), Dann Green (4ms Company), and Eric Archer (Grendel), as well as Liz Larson (LZX Industries), Nathan Wooster (Wooster Audio), the guys at Switched On, and a bunch of other great people. They inspired me to get back into audio electronics and it was not long before Delptronics was born. I really immersed myself in electronics, synthesizers, and drum machines. I love reading the old schematics and repair manuals. They are a great source of knowledge and inspiration.

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Tell us about your past creations?
I used to do more circuit bending, but as I have gained expertise, I find I no longer have the patience for random bending. I want to mod more than bend. I recently modded my PaIA FatMan (hard sync, sub-oscillator, and filter mods). I am sure that there are some awesome bends on that synth, but I want more control. I want to know exactly what my mods are doing. I think the pinnacle of my bending/modding is the Birdiano Forte…

I like anything that makes cool sounds, but I have a particular affection for percussion circuits. I love drums and claps and bells. I like taking a basic percussion circuit and adding more controls to allow the sounds to be morphed into lots of variations.

I guess the things I enjoy building most are sequencers. The first PCB I designed was the Bender Sequencer (which Delptronics still sells). I have built a new sequencer for myself to perform with about once a year. It gives me the chance to test out different concepts and ideas and really see what works by using it live. All of that goes into the products I design. To be honest, if I were a good keyboard player, I probably wouldn’t focus so much on the sequencer. But since I do perform on a sequencer, I feel that it is a legitimate instrument itself, as I have told many people. Earlier this year I was reading the MPC3000 user manual and found this quote by Roger Linn in the introduction: “Since the advent of sequencers I have tracked their evolution with great interest and in my view, sequencers have evolved to a point where they are now a legitimate instrument on their own. Many of today’s musicians could be better described as sequencer players than as keyboardists or guitarists.” Exactly what I have been saying (20 years before I said it). I got to meet Roger Linn at NAMM this year which was a real kick. I told him that his work was a real inspiration to my own work. He looked down at my name badge and said “Delptronics. Oh, yeah, you make a little analog drum machine, right?” I almost fell over. Roger Linn has heard of me.

What are you currently working on?
More sequencers and percussion circuits.

What does the future hold?
Even more sequencers and percussion circuits! I really want to design an analog samba whistle circuit. That is a tough one to model electronically because there is so much going on physically inside the little thing. It is a great challenge. I get asked about whether there will be another analog drum machine like my Little Drummer Boy. Well, the model number is the LDB-1, which does imply that there will be an LDB-2, doesn’t it?

People are constantly asking me if I will build a monosynth. I have built a couple and I think that I probably will produce one as a product eventually. It will definitely be available as a kit. The one thing that I find lacking in existing synth kits is that they come with a suggested panel wiring, and people tend to do exactly what the kit says to do. As any modular user knows, there are a lot of different ways to connect the basic modules of a synth. So, even if you are building a desktop synth with no patch cords, there are a lot of different ways to wire it together. I would like to make a kit plus book combination that teaches synthesizer basics as you build.

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Tell us about your electronics lab, the tools you prefer to use in your creation…
My oscilloscope gets a lot of use. It’s a Rigol DS1052E. If you are designing circuits, as opposed to just building kits or working from other people’s schematics, then you will eventually need a scope. I still use a DMM a lot too. My Panavise is super handy. Oh, and I have a Hakko808 desoldering gun that is indispensible. Other than that, just the usual tools. Now that I think about it, the tool that I use most is a pair of tweezers. I use them way more than needle nose pliers. I’ve had them since I was a kid. My late grandfather gave them to me, so they have sentimental value too.

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How is the environment working in Austin?
It is great. It is such a friendly town. There are a ton of people into electronic music, experimental music, and just every genre of music really. There used to be more synth manufacturers in Austin, but for some reason a lot of them have moved to Portland in the last couple of years. I’m staying here. I like the sun too much to move to the PNW.

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What have you been listening to lately in the lab?
I am embarrassingly out of touch with the latest thing the kids are into now (whatever that is). Every time someone asks me “have you ever heard …” I have to answer no. I actually got so tired of having that same interaction that I had a t-shirt made that says “I have never heard of your favorite band.”

What are some of your favorite electronic designers?
The titans of course: Bob Moog, Tom Oberheim, Dave Smith, Roger Linn, Goh Nakamura. Dieter Döpfer has had a great impact on all of us with his A-100 format, commonly known as Eurorack, which is now the dominant modular format. I love reading the schematics of modern synth designers like the late Jürgen Haible, Ken Stone, Thomas Henry, and Yves Usson. When I heard that Usson had co-designed a new monosynth (the Arturia Mini Brute), I knew I would buy one, and I was not disappointed.

Where do you see the future of DIY small electronic designers in relation to the big mainstream gear makers?
DIY in general is really big right now, and DIY synth in particular is huge. It was big when I was a kid, and then it tapered off, now it’s big again. You have to figure the popularity of DIY electronics will taper off again at some point. Everything is cyclical. Through all the ups and downs, DIY electronics has never gone away, and I don’t think it ever will.

Many small manufacturers dread the day the big guys get into modular because they can manufacture runs of ten thousand units and their prices will be impossible to compete with. If it happens, then things will change for us. Even if it doesn’t, things will change. They always do. One of the changes that has taken place over the last 10 years or so is easy access to the means of production. Professional quality circuit boards can be designed with free software and made very cheaply in any quantity. Factories full of robots are waiting to assemble devices that you designed on your laptop at the kitchen table. And they will do it for a couple of bucks each in tiny quantities. Personally, I am not worried about big mainstream gear manufacturers pushing out the little guy. The little guy has a lot of resources too!

Visit Delptronics for more information.

[Photo #1 appears courtesy of Rachel Zein.]