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The audio machine that warps the fabric of time

When is the last time you heard a truly new sound? Back in the 1970s, new sounds were there for the taking...

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In Chapter 8 of 'Tony Visconti: the Autobiography', producer Tony Visconti describes the recording of David Bowie's classic album 'Low', which for its time was an extraordinarily innovative work.

Much credit for that must of course go to Brian Eno whose creative talents know no bounds.

But some of the credit also goes to a machine, without which Low would sound entirely different, or perhaps would be a different album entirely.

The magic box that bears such responsibility is the Eventide Harmonizer. Visconti doesn't state which model, which creates something of a puzzle since he says that work started in 1976, and the album was released in 1977. Eventide's own list of products gives the production dates for their first Harmonizer, the HM80, as 1978 to 1983.

Visconti does however say that his Harmonizer, which perhaps predates the HM80, was the second unit to arrive in the UK. That, together with its remarkable abilities, would make it something rather special.

The Eventide Harmonizer, in all of its versions, is basically a pitch changer.

"Nothing new about that", you say. Well, in 1976 pitch changing wasn't just rocket science, it was alien science.

Changing the pitch of a sound without altering the speed was a kind of holy grail of audio. I heard that there was once a pitch changing device called the Tempophon that could be fitted to an analog tape recorder. I have never the results from this, but I can't imagine it could have been anything like hi-fi in quality.

One trick that engineers soon learned to do with the Harmonizer was to feed a proportion of the output back to the input through a delay.

Input a signal to the Harmonizer and a pitch-changed version will appear at the output. Then that signal will be delayed and pitch changed again. And again, and again, and again...

The result is a decaying echo where each of the repeats rises in pitch. Or falls in pitch if you have set a negative pitch change.

David Bowie's Low features this sound strongly on snare drum. Remember, that no-one had ever heard a sound like this.

Of course, pitch changing plug-ins are ten a penny these days. And delay is often built in. Anyone can do this, so is there still a point?

This raises am issue that is absolutely fundamental to music over the last thousand years (which is effectively the entire history of music as we know it).

Every time a new piece of technology comes along, whether it is a bowed string, sackbut or crumhorn, saxophone, electric guitar, synthesizer, Harmonizer - every time this happens musicians and composers fall over themselves in the rush to use it.

Any new development is pounced upon and used over and over until the listening public are quite sick of it. It then goes through a lull period before being accepted as just another color in the musical palette.

This works two ways.

Firstly, if you can have access to a new technology very early, you can be seen to be innovative and creative. People will listen to your work because it sounds different.

But then everyone else will catch up. After a couple of years, your work will sound cliched and tired. It's only cliched and tired because others have made it so by over-using this particular item of new technology. But cliched and tired it is.

If you're astute, you will already have moved on to the next thing. If you don't, then you will be competing with the masses who are now easily able to recreate your sound.

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By David Mellor Thursday November 30, 2006
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