I was fortunate to pick up a Kay R-12 “Rhythmer” at a yard sale last week. It’s not every day that I have the opportunity to pick up a vintage drum machine for a buck! Upon trying it out at home, I discovered that it functioned, albeit with an additional high-pitched whining sound occurring throughout the chosen rhythm. This had to go, but I wasn’t at all sure what was causing it.
The next day, I cracked open the Rhythmer, figuring that I might get lucky and spot some sort of loose connection; basically, I hoped that my extremely limited electronics repair abilities wouldn’t be too severely called-upon. It’s true– I’m less truly knowledgeable about electronics than I am a helpful combination of lucky and willing to experiment. After all, I only spent a dollar, right?
I didn’t spy any obvious broken parts, so I employed my next “technique”… start poking wires in there! Now, before I continue, let me bring you a short announcement from Reed Ghazala, father of circuit-bending:
“Trying to circuit-bend any device operating on the “house-current” of your wall outlet is OUT OF THE QUESTION!!! This holds true even in the instance of AC adapters. Circuit-bending is for BATTERY-POWERED CIRCUITS ONLY.”
There’s a reason Ghazala says this– it’s so you don’t set your instrument on fire, send blinding blue sparks into your eyes, or perform an act of auto-electrocution. It’s serious!
I did it anyway.
My first poke with my little wire tester miraculously cleared up the whining noise problem, go fig. Things were going well! Being somewhat excited now, I decided to get my bending tools (i.e. miscellaneous junk) together and approach the Rhythmer the next morning with the intent to fully bend the bejeezus out of it. This is generally where a commentator says “he’s going ALL… THE… WAY!” but I’m going to save that for later.
I started off by cracking open the Rhythmer open again. At the time, I failed to appreciate how difficult it would be to type the word “Rhythmer” over and over again. I wish I had photos of it’s guts, because they’re a bender’s dream– rows and rows of resistors, neatly spaced with huge gaps practically screaming for a molten solder jizz-baptism. The Kay company wasn’t interested in compact design, apparently! After prodding around for a while with my tester, I found seven good bends. I decided to stop there, frankly, because I’m not exactly hot with a soldering iron AND because I only had seven switches that I had rescued from some sort of Rat Shack TV switcher device earlier.
The switches looked really nice! Three-position toggles, fluid movement… but unfortunately, the pins were all pretty mangled from the de-soldering/yanking/cursing/poking my fingers process of removing them from their original board. I still managed to get all my wires soldered on, but it was a huge time-sink and a pain in the ass. I’m sure you’ve already noticed that these aren’t in the photo, right? That’s because of those dang pins! No matter how I tried, I couldn’t get the solder joints as strong as I wanted them to be. I didn’t relish the thought of cracking open the Rhythmer every time a bit of solder decided to flake out on me, so I junked them and rewired the whole mess to the bank of RCA jacks you see at the top of the photo.
Each top/bottom pair of jacks completes a bent circuit when connected by a cable. Rows 2-8 are the original seven bends, with the first row being reserved for the left-hand assignable trim pot. That means that I can “turn on” any of the bends by connecting the top/bottom jacks directly, or control that particular bend by running the cable from the top position of the pair (say, number 7) to the top position of number 1, then from bottom 1 to bottom 7… putting the pot in series with the bend. Naturally, this more open arrangement of jacks also means that I can explore some of the fun sounds that arise from connecting different circuits in series as well. There’s a lot more possibilities than seven now!
I also added the right-hand trim pot, hard-wiring it to the 8th position, which speeds up the rate of the selected rhythm. In fact, the rhythm speeds up enough to easily demonstrate John Cage’s rhythmic fact about the underlying rhythmic nature of sound– drum beats become tones. It’s great, and definitely my favorite bend so far. Adding the left-hand trim pot into the mix gives me an incredible amount of control over the precision of this bend. Another great quality of the Rhythmer is how different many of the rhythms are from one another. Because they make use of different sounds to build the actual rhythms, the same bend will often have unique results depending on what rhythm is selected from the front panel.
I also discovered the possibility of body contacts on the Rhythmer, something I’d assumed would result in me being fried.
“He’s going ALL… THE… WAY!”
Yep, body contacts. I’d forgotten that touching any ONE of the RCA cables wouldn’t be completing the circuit. Of course, I wouldn’t want to grab TWO…. but one at a time is enough to get some fun sounds going. You can hear the results in my sound sample, I’m using my thumb to create part of the beat at the beginning. The sound sample is about 11 megabytes, so give it a listen.
If you happen to come up with a better name for this thing than “Rhythmer,” leave it in the comments section! The best suggestion will get engraved front and center on the Rhythmer panel. Come on folks– you can do better than “Rhythmer,” right?!