Snapshot To The Masses

I have been extraordinarily busy fathoming out how to make this little beauty. No, not the man in the picture – this is Judge Smith – founder member of Van der Graaf Generator – the thing I have been working on is the thing he is holding! We have called it the KODAX Synthesiser – and this is it’s story …

A few months back Judge came into my store and said … someone told him that “Sonus Magus is the best place to go for bespoke musical instruments” and that “Mark makes his own guitars and synthesisers and specialises in creating new instruments which utilise Music Technology in interesting ways”  … “I wonder if you can help?”

Judge wanted a synthesiser which would track his voice and he also wanted it to look distinctive, interesting and unusual. We discussed a few ideas and he came back into the store the next day with a few existing bits and pieces for me to work with. He also brought a Digisound pitch to CV rack unit which on reflection went to VEMIA to fund the project instead of being a part of it.


The actual horn part was picked up by Judge abroad while on holiday and it became the centre piece of the instrument. Once I have a basic picture I can hold in my head I can start to add other bits. I tried a few things with Arduino and soon realised development time would be an issue and there would not be enough space inside the cone of the horn so I started to look for other ways to do it.

These things take time because I am constantly building the object in my imagination and visualising different ideas. As I go through these ideas, objects pop into my head, or literally appear three steps in front of me on the pavement. The rubber washer which holds the entire thing together was one of these. It appeared a several weeks into the project outside my house on the street. I suspect it flew off a passing truck, though I sometimes prefer to think the synth Gods were on my side that day?

The box which houses the electronics is a Kodak Brownie camera. I was looking for an enclosure and suddenly realised if I took out the lens it would be the correct diameter for the horn to go through. I was born in 1963 and my earliest encounter with photography was 110 film. I figured that being slightly older than me, Judge probably would have used a Brownie as a boy and it would give the instrument a nostalgic feel. To eliminate constant opening and closing of the box, I put a lithium-ion power pack inside it with a charging circuit and regulator so it will charge from USB or any external power supply. There is a red and blue LED to show when charging or complete and these sit behind the magnified view finder.


The switch mutes the microphone and the controls at the bottom are WAVEFORM, ENVELOPE, FREQUENCY, RESONANCE, MIX (it works as a pretty good loud hailer too ;/) The microphone is a tie clip affair that Judge already had an it fitted exactly into the hole where the reed once was. Another message from the synth Gods?

The amplifier is a simple ready built LM386, which point blank refused to play ball when it came to decoupling and had to run from a separate 9V battery. My lovely daughter Cloudia bought me chocolates for Christmas and the tin seemed very fitting. The unit is attached with velcro and peels off for use as a headphone amp, or amplifier / preamp / fuzz and all the other things people use the LM386 for!


People – give me a lot of interesting old things to make stuff with. My friend came in with a tiny old valve radio one day and said “Mark can do amazing things with old stuff, try making something with him then” and when I opened it and found the speaker was the same colour as my current project I knew it had to go in the end of the horn. We discovered the LM386 is still slightly radiophonic and because the horn is earthed it responds to skin capacitance and squeals when you touch it. Judge said “I feel like a should be wearing a white glove to play it” and nearly fell through the floor when I produced one from my jacket pocket LOL.

The brass cover – that protects the speaker slightly – is from a boat I lived on (I keep anything interesting).

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Watch the video here:

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See you on the other side of the looking glass!


Mark Ty-Wharton