Music Selected Writings

Song-by-Song: [Hydraulic] Serenity Applicator from Flight of the Atom Bee

Every  week, I am publishing an article about a composition of mine, the gear, the inspiration, what was involved, and so on. I hope you enjoy them! I am enjoying writing them. —Knox

I have mentioned the Roland JX-8P Synthesizer in the pieces about Flight of the Atom Bee and The Big Shimmer. I used it to create the chordal pads that dominate both pieces. I do not recall using it on Wild Pink Yonder, for whatever reason.

There is an old maxim in the electronic music community,”New piece of gear = new track.” In other words, when you get a new piece of gear, its sounds inspire a new composition. At the time I wrote Wild Pink Yonder, I was in the end of a gear acquisition binge and that is perhaps why I didn’t use the JX-8P on that song.

The reality is that, over time, the JX-8P, even more so that the Serge Modular, became my secret weapon. I used it for pads, but even more importantly, bass sounds.
The Roland JX-8P Hybrid Synthesizer
The JX-8P is one of the great under-appreciated syths, I believe largely due to its bland preset sounds and the relative difficulty in programming new sounds. It had two digitally controlled multi-waveform oscillators, a great analog filter. Programming was done with either setting one pararmeter for a sound via slider at a time, which made intuitive sound design almost impossible, or with the PG-800 Programmer.

The Pg-800 made the exploration of sound design on the JX-8P quite intuitive, but since I knew nothing in the beginning, really, about what any of the parameters did to sound, I was just blindly experimenting. The thing was, I didn’t mind spending two days tweaking a sound to get it right. All the pad sounds on The Big Shimmer and Flight of the Atom Bee were the results of such exploration. It was a form of meditation for me.


As time rolled on, I got a lot more proficient at making unique usable sounds. It has always seemed to me that the depth of the JX-8P itself worked against its popularity, but it was and is an awesome machine for those willing to spend the time building sounds from scratch. I will be talking about the JX-8P in future articles in this series: in retrospect, its sound was clearly at the core of my music composition and arranging process.

I haven’t had a JX-8P in over ten years, as of this writing in 2013, but looking at the above pictures, I find myself thinking about how nice it would be to have one again. There is now an iPad version of the PG-800, which makes the prospect quite possible.


I would have to say that the genesis of [Hydraulic] Serenity Applicator was the bass sound itself. I’m not sure what I was doing, but somehow I stumbled on this very percussive compressed bass sound which possessed very little harmonic information: it harkened back, for me, to the bass sound of Captain Beefheart’s song, Little Golden Birdies, from Clear Spot. I fell in love with it immediately and set out to write a bass line using it. You hear it in the first measure of the song.

I stretched the bass line out for a couple measures and set about writing the basic drum part, which remains pretty much the same throughout the song. I was using an Emu SP-12 drum machine at the time, a wonderful machine much love by rappers and hip-hop artist for its rhythmic feel.

It was my intention to use the same short bass part for the whole song which was beginning to take shape in my head. My thought was that, since there was so little harmonic content in the bass sound, I could just play different chords over same short repeating sequence. It almost worked, but, ultimately, I had to surrender to the musical needs of the song and modulated the bass part along with the chord changes, just like a real bass player would do.

After spending a few days building out the song, drums, bass, and the chord sequence (I still love how the first chord boldly announces itself at the third bar), it was time to add some melodic elements.

Using a system involving some archaic gear which I can’t remember, I was able to get beat-clock out of my computer into the Serge and sync a master pulse on the Serge to the song. This master pulse could be used to trigger envelopes, voltage changes, i.e., a step-generator, and so on.

I built some patch on the Serge: I honestly can’t remember which modules I used now. I started up the song and began twiddling knobs. I imagine I recorded to digital audio tape. After I got enough bits to use, I transferred them into the song file in StudioVision, editing, trimming, discarding bad parts, and began moving them around and placing them where they needed to be.

I wish I could say it was I who made the decisions, but it rarely was me at the helm when working on these songs. If I moved a piece of sound to the right spot, it would just lock into place, as if on its own. Much later, my friend Greg Jones pointed out that the song, with the walking bass line and the syncopated synth swirls, was straight-up ragtime in parts, but this was in no way a conscious decision on my part, as much as I wish I could claim it so.

In the middle dreamy part, I wanted the the Serge parts to convey an emotional arc over the melancholy chord changes. I believe I succeeded. I was always attempting to anthropomorphize my synthesizers, inserting my “hand” so to speak to evoke emotion.

Coming out of the middle part and back into the upbeat final two minutes, I had an inspiration to add a weather forecast and that is where “A few high clouds” comes from.

Somewhere in this period, I managed to overwrite the bass sound on the JX-8P and this was a real problem. I had recorded one final mix of the instrumental parts (excluding Serge parts and the weather report samples) and I was not happy with the pad sounds, which came from a Roland D-110 rackmount synth as I recall, and possibly a Korg DW-8000. I thought they were thin and lacked warmth and motion.

I spent many hours trying to find that bass sound again, using the manual programmer. Nothing else would do for this song. Alas, I could not achieve it. I could get very close, but close fundamentally altered the feel of the song, so I was stuck. All I could do was layer in a few more synth pads to thicken the mix. I wanted some shimmer, which I got from the Roland JX-8P in an overdub.

I finally got something that worked well, beautifully even, but I believed I could have made the song a little better if I could have rerecorded with a proper mix of pads. In retrospect many years later, it doesn’t matter. This is the song and it has stood the test of time.

When we were mastering this cd some years ago at Thomas Dimuzio’s studio in San Francisco, we were listening to the playback and, right around the part where the weather report comes in, I looked over and saw my friend and associate Gustavo Lanzas looking at me and shaking his head. I said,”What?”

He said,”You think this is pop music.”

I said,”Man, it’s as commercial as anything Dr. Dre puts out!”

And he said,”Yeah, right … when music goes from your ear to your brain, it passes through another dimension.”

I’m not sure if that is a compliment or not.

Lastly, I’ll break down the name of the song for you.

Hydraulic: denoting, relating to, or operated by a liquid moving in a confined space under pressure : hydraulic fluid | hydraulic lifting gear.

Serenity: the state of being calm, peaceful, and untroubled.

Applicator: a device used for inserting something or for applying a substance.

Hydraulic Serenity Applicator.

I’m sure it makes perfect sense now.



Music Selected Writings

Song-by-Song ~ Flight of the Atom Bee

Unfortunately, this is not the photograph of the Bee patch itself: there were five positions across several panels where banana cables were piggy-backed five-high, routing control voltages hither, thither and yon. And, of course, many more spots where plugs were stacked two-, three-, or four-high, a symphony of brightly colored spaghetti strands.

For a more detailed description of the constuction of the bee, bird, bee-thought sounds, the drone, etc., please continue reading. But first ….

Ubi Mel Ibi Apes, along with my composition 3 seconds before Maia smiled, another song built around unique analog sounds from the Serge, are in the permanent collection of the SF Museum of Modern Art, as part of Glenn McKay’s lightshow installation, Altered States. What does this mean? It means I got my name on a wall not in a public restroom for once.


The Blue Serge
The Blue Serge

The three blue panels on the left were built by Roy Sablosky at CalArts in the late 1970’s. None of the modules had any markings whatsoever, although ins, outs, CV, and audio were color-coded. ]{This was the era where a squadron of guerilla synthfreaks surreptiously comandeered part of a building on campus to create a de facto serge assembly plant. “Built by bohemians on speed for bohemians on speed,” as Sound Transform Systems mastermind Rex Probe put it in his inimitable delicate style.}

Read Roy’s piece on the blue Serge & the Savoy Tivoli show here.

Roy, and collaborator Greg Jones, both students of Mort Subotnick, performed selections from their landmark electronic album No Imagination at the Savoy Tivoli in San Fracisco’s North Beach in the very early eighties using the blue and four-panel Serge systems. When they performed a piece of Roy’s, Forced – possibly the most acoustically violent piece of pulsed and gated white noise ever created- at top volume, the punk rockers in the audience went berserk and started screaming, pelting them with projectiles of various mass. It was not pretty. To be honest, I could empathize with the audience in this case. Forced was a brutal piece of music, an ear-shattering sonic onslaught.

The beauty of the Serge systems is the great range of sonic texture, color, and expression one can coax from the open architecture.

In the case of The Flight of the Atom Bee, the Analog Shift Register module in the center blue panel actually engendered the the whole piece. I was experimenting with it, sending bucket-brigade control voltages to an oscillator, timing pulse generated by the TR-606 drum machine (on the right of the picture) and achieved, after a time, the bee-thought cascading counterpoint which opens the song. I called Jeffrey McEachin, then known as mr808 on the Analogue Heaven mailing list, and played it for him over the phone. His response  after a moment:

—It needs a space cricket sound to go with it.

I got off the phone and fiddled around or a while, unable to construct a cricket sound to my liking. And suddenly, the thought popped in my head: No, it needs a bee sound. I will always be grateful for mr808 putting me on the insectoid path to satori. I played electron slides-and-ladders for the next week to create the sonic Bee and other audio components for the piece.


In the picture above, we have (in the foreground) a Serge Touch Keyboard and a custom panel of oscillators and modifiers built by Rex Probe and crew at Sound Transform Systems in Oakland. I used the TKB for voltages  to micro-tune the drone and also the filter cutoff and resonance for Atom Bee.  On the panel behind the TKB I used  the New Timbral Oscillator in conjunction with a Precision VC Oscillator to create the birdy sounds – modified only by a Roland Space Echo on the recording.

The Bee was comprised of three separate sounds: the buzzing of the wings, the whoosh as the bee banks left and right, and the slightly exaggerated, distorted wing-stress sound as wingtip vortices create momentary turbulence.

The four-panel box in the back was built by Serge Tcherepnin himself in the mid-seventies.  On a later post, we will take a closer look at the panels, including the brown resin he poured over all the circuitry inside to protect his designs from copycats.

It was at one time in the experimental music department at Mills College in Oakland, Ca. They paid composer Greg Jones with as payment for writing a manual for their new Serge system. He paid me with it for designing a new logo for his company.

This box was the core of the Bee. The basic buzz came from one of the three old oscillators in the upper-left panel. A simple saw-tooth, modulated slightly to round-out the waveform with a rising and falling control voltage. There was also, the obvious rising and falling pitch generated by the Dual-Slope Generator over on the right. The DSG also triggered the Stepped-Function module to send out another voltage to raise and lower the over-all pitch of the buzzing bee, in steps, of course.

The distorted wing-stress sounds were made with the Triple-Wave Shaper and mixed in with VC Gates.

The Whoosh was filtered white-noise and the phase-shifter, which Greg Jones pulled out of a Mutron guitar pedal and kludged into the panel on the lower right. Also gated.

These three elements were mixed and sent out in a mono feed to another Roland Spaced Echo.

Timing pulses all generated by the Roland TR-606, which can be heard on the song. The only other sound on the song was the chord, which was made by a Roland JX-8P with the keys taped down and fed into the mixing board.

The whole Bee patch ran non-stop for over two months in the Love Shack studio. I couldn’t turn the synths off because I was afraid that if any components cooled, it would affect tone, or pitch, or timbre. Finally, hearing the Fear in my voice, mr808 flew down from Portland and helped me record the song. He also recorded a 26 minute mix which I will post at a later date, with his permission.

Recording of Flight of the Atom Bee was one live pass, mixed on the fly, using a noisy old Soundcraft mixer that had been used at Eli’s Mile High Club, a blues institution, in Oakland for many years. I hesitate to think how much whiskey and cigaret smoke adorned the circuitry of that board. We could only get one mono channel out in to this old Otari 8-track 1″ analog tape system, and even that was so noisy we had to do massive noise reduction when putting the cd together.

I cannot find my picture of the Bee patch. A shame. I will keep looking.

Music Selected Writings

Song By Song: Wild Pink Yonder from Flight of the Atom Bee

I wrote/arranged/produced/created both The Big Shimmer & Flight of the Atom Bee almost concurrently … this took place over a period of months, mostly due to my having to learn so much about digital recording and arranging. I’ve written plenty about the title track, Flight of the Atom Bee, elsewhere.

I learned a tremendous amount with those two pieces. It was a time of non-stop experimentation and gear exploration and I was rapidly learning how to arrange and control sythesizers from my Macintosh, using StudioVision. I was also doing a lot of audio processing using other applications like Sound Design to modify, enhance, and make weird noises.

My next piece was to become Wild Pink Yonder, which was to take the number two spot between the two compositions.

By now I had a room full of synthesizers all being run off my Mac. I had also gotten a new mixer: the old Soundcraft I had been using for my first two songs was horrifically noisy on almost every channel. The venerable old blues establishment, Eli’s Mile High Club in Oakland, had been home to it for many many years and it seemed as if every part of the circuitry and signal chain, the faders and pots were encrusted with nicotine and spilled whiskey: they did not improve the sound.

I had a lot of effects boxes and processors: I tended to use them on specific synths in-line, which means I didn’t send the sound from the mixer and bring it back into the mix.

This was the first song where I programmed every note. I used an Alesis S4 rackmount synth for the bass line: it was an interesting synth, but I was too new to programming to explore its sound design possibilities in any real way (if it had had an outboard module like the JX-8P’s programmer, with sliders and knobs and switches, that would have been a different story), but it had some great sounds pre-programmed, including this round bass sound. The bassline itself was based on a simple blues I-IV-V chord progression, with a major seventh thrown in.

I began programming my first drum patterns on the Mac as well. Again this was another case where I had no idea what I was doing. I remembered reading an interview with James Brown where he said, “To make it funky, you have to hit the one!” Meaning the first beat of the measure. So I thought I better hit the one with a snare: I didn’t realize that, normally, you hit the the one with the kick drum and used the snare on the two and four: the back beat. You will notice that several songs on this album do not have a back beat. Well, live and learn, I say.

So I began building out the song, starting with the bassline and a rudimentary drum pattern.

I had an Emulator II, a very early sampler, which came with some very interesting samples—you can hear a lot of them on my first two instrumental cds. I started with a choir, trying different things until I got a nice dreamy flow going. I then added in the second melody line using a Roland D-110 “moog” patch.

The sound began to take shape and I found it reminded me of the furniture polish ads I saw on TV as a child, where the woman experienced near orgasmic ecstacy as she blissfully polished her dark oak table with lemon-scented aerosol wax. And once that happened, it was simply a matter of following each musical thread/line where it would take me.

I arranged in real time, meaning, I would work on a few measures at the same time, listening to everything together and tweaking each until each part locked into place. It was a very intuitive process, wherein I discarded a lot of ideas. Of course, there was always a certain amount of serendipity as well: I had the passion to follow accidental ideas where they took me and sometimes they paid off greatly.

There are a few bars at the very end of the piece, after the breakdown, that took me four days to work out. I didn’t mind at all.

Once I had all the parts in place, I realized it needed one more thing and I got my friend Lynn to come down and record the words “You naughty boy,” which I layered in the intro and a couple other spots in the song.

As I did for all of my instrumental work in those days, once the mix was set and exactly where I wanted it, I recorded the whole thing to digital audio tape and that was the final mix.

I still love this song many years later. I listen to it and wonder where some of it came from. It was during the comosing and arranging of this piece that I began to realize that we are really channeling the music: it is flowing through us to the degree our craft, discipline, and a certain je ne sais quois allow it to happen.

But that place, down below where the music is, is where I have found refuge and weathered many storms up here o the surface.

Music Selected Writings

Song-By-Song: The Big Shimmer From The Flight Of The Atom Bee

The Big Shimmer was the opening for my first album, Flight of the Atom Bee, which you can read about here.

In the early days of my re-submerging into music making, around 1994, as I recall, I didn’t really know what I was doing. I had barely played guitar for almost twenty years. I had spent a couple of years in the late mid-eighties learning the ins and outs of creating semi-musical sound with a Serge Modular Synthesizer, which was a complex, finicky, almost impossible-to-play noise-making device. But I was still drinking and nothing came of my nightly analog meanderings. I would occasionally come up with amazing patches in my stupor, but one half-twist of one tiny non-descript knob somewhere on the largely un-labeled boards would destabilize the whole patch and I would never be able to get it back to where it had been, much less remember how I got there in the first place.

When, later, after a few years of sobriety, the light went on over my head and I remembered that I had at one time practiced guitar for up to eight hours a day, I got the Serge and some other gear out of storage and went on a synthesizer and music studio gear buying binge which lasted a couple of years.

So before too long, I had a studio that looked like this:

That didn’t mean I knew what to do with it. It was baby steps at first. I think I have mentioned before that I had no clue about how midi worked, how to write a drum part, or a bass line, or how to score strings, and so on, so The Big Shimmer was comprised of small simple units of my own making.

The Big Shimmer started with the bass sound and then the bass line itself, which I put together on the Serge, using the Serge Touch Keyboard as a control-voltage sequencer, sync’ed to a little Roland TR-606 drum machine to generate beat clock, as well as the simple drum pattern you hear throughout the song. Later, I had to use a very early Roland midi interface to send beat-clock to the TR-606 drum machine to get the hi-hat patterns you hear in the song, which were processed through a Mutron Bi-Phase phase-shifter, a classic piece of analogue sound processing gear.

The chord in the song was played on a Roland JX-8P, a beautiful digital synth with analogue filters on which I would spend days tweaking one sound – it was a wonderful form of meditation. There were three primary patches used for The Big Shimmer: the main pad, one to allow a I-V chord progression, and the big wide shimmering tone you hear layered here and there, and in the last three or four minutes of the piece.. The chord itself was just a series of fifths up the keyboard C-G-D-A-E-B with the keys taped down and all the chords were recorded in one pass in real time. I did whatever layering and editing was necessary later.

I ran the JX-8P through a real spring reverb, so much of the motion you hear in the sound is the result of kinetic energy building standing waves within the spring itself. A beautiful sound.

By this time I was recording into my computer using the great StudioVision application.

I recorded the bass line, the chord and its variations via different patches on the keyboard, the drum parts, including the phase-shifted hi-hats, and the incidental serge noises separately.

I then began to take them apart and put them back together again in StudioVision, cutting and pasting snippets of sound and learning how to build and arrange a song.

It was an incredibly exciting time for me – I had no idea what I was doing. Everything was serendipitous, but I was fearless and would happily follow ideas wherever the sound would take me. There was a tremendous amount of uncovering, discovering, and then disposing.

I have no idea how long I worked on the piece once it was on my computer, but I do remember when I got the mix almost done, as you hear it now and I made a cassette of it and played it for my artist friend, the beautiful and talented and sexy Lynn Klein. We were driving to a restaurant and I parked as the song was about half-way through.

We sat until the piece was finished.

She looked at me and said,”Knox, that is just sex!”

I knew that I had succeeded.

I made a quick video for The Big Shimmer
Selected Writings

The Reason That I Am Alive by Boris Vian

Claude Michel Celse, Seaside Town, 1948

the reason that I am alive
By Boris Vian

the reason that I am alive
the reason that I am alive
for the tanned leg
of a blonde woman
propped against the wall
beneath the round sun
for the billowing sails
of a sleek schooner
at the mouth of the harbor
the iced coffee sipped through a straw
for the caress of sand
gazing at the watery deeps
turning so blue
descending into the deeps
with the fish
the tranquil fish
they calm the bottom of the ocean
fly above the seaweed hair
like slow birds
like blue birds
the reason that I am alive
because it is beautiful

Selected Writings

My Life: A Graphic

KB_Timeline (pdf)

My good friend Brad Eigen had to do an interview on mental illness/addiction/alcoholism for a class he is taking. He knew exactly who to call.

Selected Writings

Love Is Patient, Love Is Kind

Love is patient, Love is kind,
It does not envy, it does not boast,
It is not proud, It is not rude,
It is not self-seeking,
It is not easily angered,
It keeps no record of wrongs. 

Love does not delight in evil,
but rejoices with the truth.

Love always protects, always trusts,
always hopes, always perseveres.

Love bears all things, believes all things,
hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends.
Love never fails.

Corinthians 13 : 4 – 8

Selected Writings

Delia Derbyshire – Love Without Sound (1969)

I don’t know much about Delia Derbyshire, but she did incredible things with a tape-recorder in the era before samplers. She made music for the British TV show, Dr. Who. A fascinating artist, quite cute, as well. The proprietor of would kill for a pair of her panties.

Selected Writings

Welcome to the mess

The Bottle—©2011 Knox Bronson

I’m redoing this site over the next week or so.

Perhaps it will inspire me to post more here! Probably not. Pixels has still taken over my life. But I am heading back into the studio to record my next cd.

Much to my surprise, the title “One Man’s Opinion Of Moonlight” has soundly pulled ahead of “Naked” as the favored title for my next cd.


Selected Writings

I’m so cosmic I fart gaseous nebulae