User Preferences: Tech Q&A With Effects Designer Dr. Blankenstein
(Above) Sonic Crusher (2012)
Each week we chat about the tools of the trade with one outstanding creative to find out exactly how they do what they do. The questions are always the same, the answers, not so much. This week: Dr. Blankenstein. Click here for more User Preferences Tech Q&As.
Who are you and what do you do?
Dr. Blankenstein: My name is Drew Blanke, but I am better known as Dr. Blankenstein. I am a resident New Yorker, artist, musician, circuit bender, inventor, and maker of custom synthesizers and effect modules/pedals.
Recently I have given boutique synthesizers to both legendary German techno innovators Kraftwerk, and electronic music revolutionary / bass guitar god Squarepusher (Tom Jenkinson), taught a circuitry class at the New York Hall of Science, participated in the World Maker Faire, was a top three winner in this year’s Moog Circuit Bending Challenge, and was even mentioned in Rolling Stone.
Most importantly, I launched my boutique gear company (Dr. Blankenstein Custom Synthesizers and Effects), which is moving along very well, but is still in its very early stages. For 2013, I plan to release my first batch of low production instruments and audio effects… as well as a bunch of really exciting DIY kits folks can build on their own.
What kind of hardware do you use?
I design and build my instruments and effects with a custom built super computer I lovingly call “TRON,” which is built into a super futuristic BMW computer tower. It’s a super tricked out “gaming computer” (which I will NEVER play a single game on) equipped with a light up Luxeed keyboard/mouse pad, two Viewsonic VX2268WM 22” 3D monitors and one Viewsonic VX2258WM 22” touch enabled monitor. I use a Dremel 300, Weller soldering iron, Kodak Hero 9.1 inkjet printer, Canon LPB6000 laser printer, digital microscope, pliers, wrenches, and screw drivers to complete my pieces. Sometimes, even I am mind blown by how many steps there can be to complete a piece from start to finish.
The GoogaMooga (2012)
What kind of software do you use?
ExpressPCB, ExpressSCH, Photoshop CS6, Sony SoundForge 10, Sony Vegas 12, FL Studio 10. It’s not really software but… Google searches! Lots of Google searches for parts, schematics, research, images, ideas… advancing my craft at the breakneck speeds I have would NEVER have been possible 20 years ago, I think that is fair to mention. It stills amazes me, a day doesn’t go by without me thinking “Wow, if I only had this when I was younger, but man… are we lucky to have it now!” Let that be a lesson to you kids out there.
What piece of equipment can you simply not live without?
It’s not a very exciting answer, but it’s an honest one. I am going to have to say my Dremel 300. For me the Dremel was the piece of gear I was told over and over again for years that I MUST own, yet really never saw why it was SO essential. Then I received one as a gift, and soon it all became very clear. At first I still didn’t really get it, it was nice to use to fix a wonky switch hole or sand a rough corner down, but still not seeing this wonder tool I had heard SO MUCH about. As the weeks passed more and more of its strange little attachments came into play and my love for my fast spinning new friend grew. These days I feel I spend more time with it in my hand than I do with my Weller soldering iron. Not sure if that is really how I would like things (see next question) but regardless, I couldn’t live without the little sucker.
The Man Machine Synthesizer (2012)
If money were no object, how would you change your current setup?
Well, living in Manhattan as I do, the first thing I would have to mention would be space. Be it a shop, shared space, or simply a place with a garage. Not having the space to lay out larger projects, as well as use certain chemicals and techniques simply not safe for indoor home use is not easy to manage. I mean, I do most of my work 10 feet from where I cook dinner and eat. I have plans for some much larger and extremely exciting instruments/installations that will have to wait for a better building situation to develop.
Next, I would have to say computer interfaced fabrication machines such as a laser cutter or 3D printer, etc. This would simply streamline my building process and free up tons of time for more circuit designing and construction. I spend just as much, if not more, time cutting, measuring, drilling, Dremeling than I do soldering, breadboarding, and designing electronic circuits. Not to mention, I am a bit of a perfectionist when it comes to my work, so I will work very carefully not to make any design mistakes. This can be very time consuming to say the least. Fabrication machines would alleviate a lot of this busy work while perfecting overall quality of the cases I use to house my pieces. These days I feel almost anything is possible, but I must always consider how much time and space it will take to achieve… I wish to remove these factors from my work.
Illumiringer V1.0 (2012)
Is there any piece of technology that inspired you to take the path you did?
I wouldn’t say it was a specific piece of technology per se, it was more of a combination of many factors at once. It was the early to mid 80’s, breakdance music, home computers, movies like TRON, video games were suddenly the thing, and I was at a prime age to suck it all up. So much of what was fun to do on a Saturday afternoon or after school involved building something (HeathKits, Erector Sets, LEGO, slot cars tracks, etc., or plugging in (Atari, Commodore64, Intellivision, Casio keyboards, arcade games). For me, every new invention or innovation I was lucky enough to brush up against was a thrill. It still is.
Of course I have to mention Mr. Wizard, Bob Ross, Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers, for without their consistent need to fill my young mind (and countless others) with incredible new information, I would not be the man I am today.
What is your favorite piece of technology from your childhood?
I am going to have to say the Commodore 64. So much of my life in the 80s was spent either typing “,8,1 RUN” in for a new piece of software, typing out massive codes written in BASIC and listed in the back of Computer World and Home Computing Magazine, composing what would be the first electronic music pieces of my life, using my beloved Koala pad to draw digital pictures, running up my parents long distance phone bill calling BBSs on the other side of the planet. I even ran my own for a little while. Yup, the world was my oyster in front of the little plastic wedge of magic. For a few years there, after Commodore went out of business, I felt as though computers would never be the same for me. Luckily, then came the 90s. I am thinking of picking up the new and improved super charged version of the C64 they just released. I am just not sure why yet.
Britney Spears – The Circuit Bent AM / FM Vintage Radio (2012)
What fantasy piece of technology would you like to see invented?
I have a lot to say about this one. I don’t think it would be fair to call it a “fantasy piece of technology” since the plans are still available and the device once existed, but I would have to say Nikola Tesla’s “Free Energy for Earth” Antenna Tower that once stood in Wardenclyffe, Long Island.
Many now know the story, but many more don’t. To sum it up very quickly, J.P. Morgan (the dude who started Chase bank, the Donald Trump of the early 1900s) sponsored Nikola Tesla’s work in hopes of him developing a power system to better compete with Thomas Edison’s. Well, what Tesla did was develop a method and the equipment to support it that would harness unlimited power from natural forces at work in Earth’s atmosphere and wirelessly transmit them to the entire world. It worked! The only problem was it was free for everyone, forever. This did not please the money hungry power tycoon Mr. Morgan one bit. His now legendary response to Tesla’s explanation/demonstration was, “If anybody can draw on the power, where do we put the meter?" Very sad words our planet would not soon forget. The Wardenclyffe Tower, and Tesla’s good scientific name were very quickly dismantled.
I have researched his patents, schematics, and plans for the tower and was even able to build a small version of it that was able to pull a very low amperage 20 volts on the roof of my NYC apartment. Now, imagine what greater scientific minds and a healthy budget could do? Very recently, the Wardenclyffe property where the tower once stood and the research lab that was at its base was rescued by the Nikola Tesla Society. Over a million dollars in donations came in from around the world to save the property and building for a much deserved Nikola Tesla Museum. As much as this pleases me, what really needs to happen, and quickly, is the continuation of his many amazing patents and inventions that could free us from fossil fuels and make huge advances for civilization forever.
The James Brown Keytar Synth (2012)