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Style and Error

Karl Ekdahl finds new sounds by misusing electronic systems

Michael Northrup
Karl Ekdahl outside his workshop.
Michael Northrup

Big Music Issue 2009

Behind The Fence Ogun extends a helping hand, and keeps his other hand on the mic | By Al Shipley

Style and Error Karl Ekdahl finds new sounds by misusing electronic systems | By Michael Byrne

Bigger Than Baltimore The same but different: Baltimore club, Philly party music, and New Jersey's Brick City club | By Brandon Soderberg

Why Knot Wye Oak's Andy Stack and Jenn Wasner talk about the songwriting focus on their new album | By Geoffrey Himes

By Michael Byrne | Posted 7/15/2009

It looks innocuous enough: a small console, about the size of a dictionary, with several knobs of different shapes and colors on the front, and a series of three thick, parallel springs on the top. The contraption resembles so many other musical electronic devices that you have no idea how they do what they do, knowing only that they sound cool or make something else sound cool. And the noises this one makes are endless or seem to be from a demonstration earlier this month ranging from deep, ragged rumbles that sound like the inside of a hurricane to lashing audio whips to simple reverberation to things its creator and new owners haven't even dreamed up yet. This is the Ekdahl Moisturizer, Karl Ekdahl's unexpected hit of an effects box/electronic instrument/synth module.

Homemade, bizarre instruments are old hat in Baltimore with folks such as Peter Blasser and Neil Feather turning out noise-makers that veer between whimsical and meticulous, Ekdahl is still a small fish but his box is poised to make him a very big name in the solder-scented world of synth geekery. Indeed, as of this writing, the mohawked Swedish expat he moved to Baltimore some three years ago after a brief stint in New York has taken orders for the Ekdahl Moisturizer from every continent save for Africa and Antarctica: 16 have been sold, 12 are under construction, and the line for future orders is out the door.

After a spurt of publicity on a well-known synth blog, the "orders just started raining, hailing in," Ekdahl says during a July interview at his workshop in Hampden's True Vine Record Shop while faceplates for the Moisturizer cook in a toaster in the next room. "I was thinking of making five, total," he adds.

Prior to these orders, Ekdahl's creations at True Vine consisted of just the Vaginator, a small pink toy keyboard rewired with a variety of circuit-bending-ready interfaces basically, the voice of Satan coming from a Barbie's mouth.

Showing off the box's dials and springs, Ekdahl gets visibly excited, explaining how one of the components an analog filter, if you're in on the vernacular is actually a busted, repurposed component some three decades old. "The filter, that thunder that you heard, is because this is actually a classic filter with a design from the '70s," he explains. "But there's supposed to be an internal limiter. But I ripped it out. And it goes crazy. It's intentionally misused."

Misuse is a key world in Ekdahl's workshop, which by day handles more run of the mill instrument repairs. He finds joy in errors and tries to capture them on a circuit board or in a box. And he's a little cagey about plans for his next contraption. "One of the thoughts that I had is a classic octaver, which pitches sound a couple of octaves up or a couple of octaves down, but deliberately tracks the incoming sound really bad so it might be a little off, a half note or so, a little wobbly," he says. "Slight chaos, not controllable, but also not digitally emulated. Because that's predictable. In digital technology, they're trying to emulate these errors, but they still know exactly where these errors are."

At this point in the conversation, Jason Willett, True Vine's owner, Half Japanese member, and all-around experimental figurehead-about-town, emerges from an adjoining room. "That sounds like a very advanced version of a pedal in Japan called 'retarded,'" he says, apparently not joking. "One of the bands Half Japanese stayed with [was] called Ultrafuckers. One of the guys, by his bed, had a really professional looking pedal, silver, and it had one knob and that's it, and input/output. And I said 'What is this pedal?' He says, 'Pedal I design.' I said, 'I have a feeling if you turn this knob, the control is not smooth.' He says, 'Not smooth, very retarded.'"

Turning to Ekdahl, Willett asks, "But yours would have a sort of artificial intelligence built in that would detect what's coming in?" The interjection is fair enough: Willett was one of the driving forces behind the Moisturizer.

"Jason had the very first idea--he just wanted the springs to play," Ekdahl says. "And I added an EQ." Ekdahl reaches past a row of four Moisturizer circuit boards under construction and a couple of oscilloscopes on a neighboring work table, and picks up the original Moisturizer a board, a half dozen (or thereabouts) knobs, and a messy tangle of red, white, and blue cords. "It's pretty much trash now," he says.

Martin Schmidt, one half of amorphous electronics duo Matmos and general synth obsessive, then came forward with financing for Ekdahl to make more of them. "Martin was like, 'Make a product,'" Ekdahl says.

To the original prototype, "I just started adding more and more," Ekdahl says. "The cool thing is that it evolved so much, just through people's opinions. It went from being pretty much just an experimental-people-just-banging-on-the-springs kind of thing to a very versatile thing that can be used as a very normal instrument to go fucking nuts [with]. I think that's why I got so many orders. The comments I've gotten from e-mails is that people have very different ideas of how they're going to use this."

Indeed, the possibilities for the Moisturizer are vast. By itself, the three springs can be played in a similar way to a very, very loosely strung guitar, or at least a guitar with its own EQ adjustments built-in. The other face of the Moisturizer is like a reverb box: an instrument hooked up to it will vibrate the three springs, saving and repeating the audio signal. Having the springs mounted on the outside of the device itself means you can manipulate that sound in the most visceral way possible with your hands.

"I hate computers," Ekdahl says matter-of-factly. "That's why the Moisturizer is exciting to me. Making cool gear that you can actually touch, poke, push. You can play a sound through it and then interact with sound going through the springs with your hand. In my mind, the effective sound of an instrument depends much more on the interface then its acoustic properties or 'physical sound.' A keyboard will never sound like a guitar, for instance, due mostly to the interface--things like never being able to instantaneously hit all strings at once, or go from one note to the other, etc. This whole interface-deal is the most important thing to me--period--coming to design of music gear.

"I want to present a box to people, and the knobs will have names on them that people have never seen before," he continues. "And not do that to be funny, but because those knobs have never existed before, so I had to make them up. And I think that's much more interesting, or much more challenging. Right now, there are a trillion and one pedal businesses out there, and they're all making another fuzz box. And that's not really interesting. Because there's so much out there. What I'm aiming to do, generally, is make new things, or things particularly broken or erroneous. I don't think the world needs another distortion box not from me anyway."

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