An engineering ungrad exploits his knowledge of engineering to meet girls, ace a music class
They work you pretty
hard as an EE undergraduate. Early on, I discovered that classes in English,
physical education, and music were way more fun and a lot easier. I
particularly liked the two classes I took on analog synthesizers.
The Univ. of Pittsburgh in the mid-1970's had no Moogs, but they did have a
Buchla synth and a large ARP, plus several half-inch tape decks. The music
majors all had a lot of work to do figuring out how all this stuff worked.
Without a working knowledge of what a "volt" was, facing a large
array of voltage-controlled modules was a pretty daunting prospect. I often
spent a half hour after class privately explaining what the professor was
trying to say about how things really worked. This was not a chore for me,
however -- most of the class was female, which was not the norm in my EE
classes back then.
We had to compose and record our homework every week. I decided to do a
variation on Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition "Great Gate of
Kiev" theme for my first week's effort, and it got such a reaction I stuck
the first few notes into every other homework assignment thereafter. To make it
harder I disguised the notes as blasts of pink noise, or thumps in the right
rhythm. (Kind of a Where's Waldo for music majors.)
One night I unknowingly reinvented a technique first used by Les Paul and then
the Beatles: you take the 1/2 inch magnetic tape off the supply reel of tape
deck A, past the record head, and past the capstan, but then you loop the tape
all over the room, off coat hangers, the backs of chairs, and the light
fixture, then you bring it past the play head of tape deck B, and onto B's
take-up reel. Voila, a variable echo that goes on and on and...
But my best trick was when I showed up to the final concert, where everyone had
to play their final compositions. The teacher was going to play a composition
that involved several musicians throwing metallic objects onto a table top at
just the right times and places. These musicians had scores to cue them as to
when and what to throw. The table was rigged with phonograph cartridges mounted
to the corners of the table, to pick up the sounds made by the objects.
trouble was, a loud hum was emanating from the large speakers mounted in the
corners of the room, and the teacher was scratching his head in puzzlement and
frustration. I smiled; this was too easy. I approached him and said "IfI
make that hum go away, do I get an A in this class?" He said
"absolutely!". So I followed the speaker wires back to the amp,
grabbed the amp's AC line cord, and reversed its position in the wall socket.
Hum gone. The teacher said "how the heck did you know that would
work?" I said "I play electric guitar. If you don't know that trick,
I got an A in the course.
Bob Colwell was Intelís chief x86 architect in the 1990s and has worked as a computer designer at VLIW pioneer Multiflow, Perq Systems, and Bell Labs. Author of The Pentium Chronicles and the At Random column in Computer Magazine 2002-2005. He is currently an independent consultant.
Don Buchla came up with some really way-out stuff, and I understand that he used a control voltage to frequency transfer function of 1.2 V/octave as opposed to Moog's and others' 1 V/octave. Buchla's reasoning was to get 0.1 V/semitone. I guess either makes sense. Yeah, as I've said before, EE major and electronic musician is a match made in heaven! One of my former coworkers, a mechanical engineer and automobile nut (gearhead), said the same thing about his profession and hobby. Nice article, Bob!
This is a cool story. Playing the electric guitar is what got me into analog electronics in the beginning. Its amazing how far synthesizers, sequencers and electronic music has come. Now most of the synthesis is done in software using DSP filters, opening up the sonic landscape far beyond what was possible before. Nice anecdotal story!
What a great story! Thanks for the walk down memory lane. It reminded me of college and the troubles that a number of students had with certain courses. In particular, the chemistry class lab was difficult to complete in the 3 to 4 hours allowed for the class and often students went in on Saturday to finish up. I delayed taking Chemistry until my Senior year (EE major) and had lab work pretty much figured out by then. It seems that having experience with many other labs made the chem lab much easier. I would typically start the lab after spending 15 min reviewing the lab instructions. Then the labs were much easier, it was a matter of understanding the whole before starting at the beginning. Oftentimes the labs were done in 1.5 to 2 hours to the amusement of the lab TA.
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