Thursday, 20 August 2009

What's in a Gristleizer?

In the Potting Shed...

Several weeks ago, when I finally got to hear about 1970s industrial music/visual arts group Throbbing Gristle's upcoming June '09 Glasgow show, their first ever Scottish gig since their inception 35 years ago, it was already too late for me; some other commitments prevented my being there. But then to hear after the event, that there had been some 100+ out of 1,000 tickets unsold - that's not merely injurious, that's insulting!

Not that I'd have believed either of those titbits, even had they featured weeks or months earlier in a specially extended edition of Newsnight with Jeremy Paxman. Throbbing Gristle in Glasgow? Yeah, sure. For one thing, it's well known they disbanded in 1981. Okay, there were rumours of a 2004 reunion, but only in far hidden and inaccessible corners of the Californian outback. That they would ever play Glasgow, well ... that was just mad, crazy talk.

Today I found a very small consolation on the internets. It was a wee bit like being reunited with a childhood friend, when I rediscovered: The Gristleizer!

To the uninitiated: it's a guitar effects pedal. Actually, the picture on the left is a more modern version; the original was neither photogenic, nor in fact a pedal. What I actually discovered was that a previously broken link, to a PDF of 16-year-old hero Roy Gwinn's original article in Practical Electronics, had been repaired. From a related Smashing Guitars story:

"Though the original design is over 30 years old, The Gristleizer had never seen commercial production until the summer of 2009, when Endangered Audio updated and improved the circuit. The pedal version, housed in a high-quality, heavy-duty Hammond 1590DD box, retains all the functionality of the tabletop design with the added convenience of footswitch operation..."

That first bit is not really, what you might term, a million percent true.

For a shortish time in the latter 1970s, my father's garden shed became - to his frequent annoyance - home to many analogue electronics projects. Some of these were connected with the mobile discotheque run by my friends and me, or with various bands I was variously involved in. When we couldn't afford a new sound-to-light show, or a replacement PA cabinet, out would come the hammers, saws, soldering irons.

One of my favourite projects was making highly dangerous, 240V AC to variable 3-50V DC, lab bench power supplies - built into the hollowed out cases of expired batteries. Were you to build one of these today, the HSE would not only imprison you quite promptly, but ban all related documentation.

Sounds of the Seventies

Another favourite was guitar amplification and special effects equipment. Who could resist that Practical Electronics article? "A fast decaying ramp on the VCA produces a sound like a mandolin", it enthused. "The same control into the filter gives a bubbling, which slows down into a repeated Waa-Waa", it continued seductively. "A very slow triangle into the filter can be applied to any playing including fast runs", it taunted excruciatingly. Look!-

A beautifully compact, simple, well designed and modular audio circuit, easy to follow and experiment with, as many of us did. Including myself, and as I later learned, TG's Chris Carter - though it seems he may have used the Phonosonics kit. Hey Chris, you're a lightweight! [Oh calm down. CC has always been upfront about this fact. - Ed]

I went through quite a few redesigns over the years, but the first and most important of those was the conversion to use a 14-pin Quad Op Amp chip, the National Semiconductor LM348, to replace four out of the five "741"s; namely, the LF-VCO (low frequency, voltage controlled oscillator) and the VCA/VCF (voltage controlled amplifier & filter); leaving the original preamp unmodified. This, and the expedient of attaching components to both sides of the single-sided Veroboard, allowed me to shrink the board to about 2¼" x 1". A most significant threshold! This let me build the entire miracle device, complete with its dual PP3 batteries, multiple footswitches (another vital improvement), jack sockets and potentiometers, into an upturned Golden Virginia tobacco tin!

Sorry, but you'll have to use your imagination at this point. Like Chris, Cosey, Peter and Genesis P-Orridge, I long ago suffered the loss of my last original. It would have looked a bit like this, only of course upside down, and with switches and sockets protruding, and curly cables emanating, from it. You get the idea.

Both the Quad Op Amp chip, and the newfangled 2N3819 Field Effect Transistor (which as you can plainly see from the circuit diagram, is doing most of the heavy lifting) suffered from heat problems in that confined space; several further internal revamps were needed. Failure mode invariably comprised a sudden transition from super effects pedal, John, I definitely love you! into agonizing noise generator you basterd, inevitably in the middle of someone's impassioned, alienated, and sweat sodden solo performance of a lifetime. But wrinkles were ironed, and life went on. Actually, it was no less reliable than any other electronic device in its day. Rather, it's today's contrasting super-reliability (excepting a few bad apples) that is truly astonishing in retrospect.

As for the "commercial production" aspect, well I swear I sold one of these feckers to every guitarist I met. For about £12 each, roughly cost price. But for a time, whenever I showed any musician these little upside-down hash kit box wonders, or rather when they heard what it could do, I had a sale.

Whilst I personally, and (AFAIK) every "customer", used the device exclusively as a guitar effect, TG's Chris had clearly taken serious note of Roy Gwinn's originally concluding comment: "The unit can of course be used to treat any instrument..." In fact, Chris confirms that they then used it to process "almost everything: synth, guitar, bass, violin, tapes, rhythms and of course on Genesis (P-Orridge's) voice..."

Their music was one factor, together with their pioneering use onstage of disturbing imagery, pornography, and unbelievably innovative pre-punk soundscapes (and even more pioneering usage of sampling), which led to prominence, notoriety, and in 1976 to Tory MP Nicholas Fairbairn famously branding both TG, and the related performance art group "COUM", as "Wreckers of Civilization". Fortunately for them, the label stuck, presumably contributing immeasurably as such things do, to their popular success.

"Countless acts owe them a huge genetic debt -- everyone from Einsturzende Neubauten to Skinny Puppy to NIN to Aphex Twin to Radiohead..." (Xeni Jardin, BB)

Like much else today, the analogue sound processing business has taken some hard knocks from digital tech. It's easy for any beginner now, using standard and relatively cheap kit, to knock out basically any sound that they can imagine. Want to be a virtuoso? Learn Apple Logic!

So - about Throbbing Gristle?

O well, never mind, these alternative heroes just might come back to Glasgow in another 35 years' time, just as we all brace to hit ninety. Meanwhile, we have until 27th September to experience the afterlight of that collaboration with renowned multimedia artist, film maker and dynamic sculptor (and Derek Jarman collaborator) Cerith Wyn Evans, at Glasgow's Tramway. The exhibition is billed as "A remarkable audio sculpture: 16 suspended and highly polished circular Audio Spotlight panels. TG have composed a special multi-channel soundtrack that plays through the sculpture..."

Is it any good? Well yes, of course! But then again, don't ask me. Once more, due to prior commitments...


  1. "Some of these were connected with the mobile discotheque run by my friends and me"

    story demanded!

    "Okay, there were rumours of a 2004 reunion, but only in far hidden and inaccessible corners of the Californian outback."

    I don't know if you're aware, but they actually recorded a brand new album in 2007, which is awesome.

    The TG Now album that came about as a result of that 2004 reunion is also amazing. Although sadly I only have an mp3 copy of it, as you can't get it for a decent price any more (even the CD version goes for a minimum of 40 euros). I think the reason that it's so expensive is because it was only available at that show. One of these days I'm gonna shell out the 40 required...

    I think I'm gonna be attending that event at The Tramway.

  2. Hi John,

    Just read your blog about the gristleizer. Like you, I long ago lost or gave away or sold the original. I don't even remember where it went. But Endangered Audio did give me a nice shiny new red one, so it's not all bad.

  3. Hello Roy,

    Great pleasure to hear from you! And thanks again for all the great musical sounds, and happiness, generated by your marvellous little analog computer design, all those years ago.

    Good to know the principle's still going strong too. Though I'm sure I'd get a shock on seeing inside the shiny new red one.