Ring Modulation: The Effect from HELL!

effect_from_hell

Only very bad dogs like ring modulation!

No disrespect to Chuck Berry, but I seriously doubt Johnny B. Goode played guitar just like a-ringin’ a bell unless he was using a ring modulator. That’s the only effect that can give you the complex, clangorous harmonics of a bell or a cymbal. Or make you sound like a ravenous horde of mutant robot ants.

Theoretically, Johnny could have used one. By 1958, when Berry documented the guitarist in song, the effect was already being exploited extensively by avant-garde classical composers, notably the late Karlheinz Stockhausen, who used it to terrifying effect in his Gesang Der Jünglinge [1956].

This post drips with perverse ring-mod love, including a demo of a rare vintage Electro-Harmonix Frequency Analyzer, and another featuring Roswell Ringer, a wicked ring mod plug-in.

But first I’ll start the bell clanging with two tracks from my band, Mental 99. “Mr. Reno” features some background ring modulation throughout, and a full-on ring-mod assault during the breakdown. “Slow Melt” uses the effect on its opening melody and its subsequent variations. (Geek details: recorded live to drive without overdubs via live looping. Gear: Trussart Steelcaster, Apple’s MainStage software, many plug-ins. The brilliant Dawn Richardson drums.)

Anyone still here? Then let the ring-mod orgy continue!

As explained by this excellent Wikipedia article, ring modulation multiplies two audio signals — usually, a simple waveform modulating whatever the hell you feed into the input. Moderate frequencies generate eerie, bell-like tones that sound awesome beneath oceans of reverb. Higher frequencies produce ear-shredding shrieks. Meanwhile, ultra-low frequencies (under 10Hz, say) can create pretty, pulsing tremolo effects.

Guitarists have shied away from ring modulation, despite such notable exceptions as Devo, who duct-taped Electro-Harmonix Frequency Analyzer pedals to their guitars, and Sabbath’s Tony Iommi, who reportedly used a touch of ring-mod tremolo for the wobbly trem-fuzz on “Paranoid.”

I can’t fathom why so this bitchin’ effect is so unpopular. Must be because it tends to transform everything you play into incomprehensible noise guaranteed to alienate 98.7% of listeners. (Like that’s an excuse!) So the effect is usually consigned to that final resting place of avant-garde music techniques, the sci-fi soundtrack. (Paging Dr. Who!) And if Johnny B. Goode had played one, his audience probably would have said, “My, that little country boy can make a goddamned racket! Let’s get the hell out of here before the sun goes down.”

Ring-mod stompboxes have been around since at least the early ’70s, when Electro-Harmonix debuted the first Frequency Analyzer. What did they sound like? Well, I just happen to have a circa-’74 model right here:

As noted in the video, this pedal has some serious problems: It’s noisy, and merely plugging in neuters your volume and presence, even with the pedal bypassed. It’s a perfect example about why modern pedal makers place such emphasis on true bypass switching.

Modern ring-modulators nix this problem with better components and switching, and there’s much to like about latter-day Electro-Harmonix ring mods, as well as such boutique variants as the Way Huge Ringworm and the Moogerfooger Ring Modulator. Some versions add fuzz (including the ultra-rare Lovetone Ring Stinger, which I’ll feature in an upcoming Museum of Lost Effects installment).

But IMHO ring modulation is one of those effects that works better in the digital realm. A good plug-in ring modulator (like the Roswell Ringer, from Apple’s Logic) lets you get all the classic usual tones, and then some. It’s easier to home in on specific frequencies, or sculpt those pretty, fluttering tremolo effects. Best of all, you can automate the controls for mind-bending swoops and glides. Here’s what I’m talking about:

So: Are there any other audio perverts out there who love this unlovable effect? Can you think of any good examples of ring mod in rock besides the ones mentioned above? Anyone have good things to say about any particular hardware or software versions? Clang away!

34 comments to Ring Modulation: The Effect from HELL!

  • A great example of the Frequency Analyzer is the Devo track Too Much Paranoias from their 1977 debut.

  • I love the ring modulator. I own half a dozen. My favorites being the Snarling Dogs Psychoscumatic Wah, and the EHX Ring Thing.

    Being able to turn on both the wah and the ring mod, or use the treadle to control the carrier frequency, or do both is pretty fun. The Psychoscumatic wah is pretty neat, though it has some construction issues, basically low quality wiring. I have had to fix it a few times.

    The Ring Thing is pretty amazing as being a ring mod with so many usable sounds. Hard to describe it here but, here’s the short answer. It has side band options that allow you to get the high or low frequency rather than both. In these modes you don’t get the mathematically generated harmonies that tend to sound un musical. It has a range of sounds from your bog standard Dalek voice, to the way out there ring mod, if ring mod can get any more out there. It also can get tremolo, and chorus sounds, to pseudo harmonizer type sounds.

  • Peter

    My first home build was a ring modulator from Craig Anderton’s Electronic Projects for Musicians book back around 1978. Had lots of fun running guitar through my korg MS20/MS50 synth’s ring modulators; plenty of options to modulate the modulation. The boss SE-70 has a surprisingly good ring modulator in it (what I use now along with a kaoss pad). Ring mod with an envelope filter can make a nice sound.

    I heard ring modulation coming from the keyboards in some of Miles Davis’ early 70s bands. And Jan Hammer in the early Mahavishnu. Can and other german bands of the era. Jeff Beck has used one sparingly from time to time. Lee Ranaldo of course.

  • Black sabbath: paranoid. The guitar solo. Ring mod in one ear, “clean” in the other. Pure awesomeness

  • Oops. I see you already wrote that.

  • mwseniff

    I had a bit of experience with the first EH Ring modulator you show here that was a sort of loaner in the early 80′s i t can make some interesting sounds to say the least. I have the current EH Frequency Analyzer which is much improved with a 37 volt supply etc. IMHO one of the best uses is to plug my electric Autoharp into it (which I mounted a pair of lipstick pickups over the strings) it makes some stunningly beautiful and ugly noises especially when you get feedback. I also have a circuit I built that is influenced by the modulator in a SSB x-mitter the modulating signal input can be fed with an external source like a frequency generator, keyboard or even your own effected guitar tone it sounds cool with a whammy pedal and echo on the modulating side. It is currently on loan to a pal that feeds the second input with a theremin that has no volume antenna in use. He moves around the theremin on stage while playing guitar and creates some beautiful and disgusting sounds. The filters are disabled in the unit so you get both sidebands plus it tends to pickup the sidebands on the secondary input creating some real havoc. He is supposedly working on some recordings but I don’t know how soon or if they will bear fruit.

  • mwseniff

    The Roswell Ringer demo is pretty cool and it seems like a great tool. It seems a little too well behaved at times but that makes it more useful I guess (I like stuff that you have to fight a bit but that’s my personal perversion). I can see it being very useful on stage. The ring mod in my old Peavey Profex multi-fx processor was also a bit too gentle but it really could thicken up the guitar tone in a dirty way especially used in parallel with other fx.

  • jeremy

    pedant alert: he only said he played it like a bell, not that it sounded like one. I mean don’t you wave your guitar in the air, or tug on it via a complex system of roping while it dangles in a church tower? :)

  • jeremy

    King Crimson “Dig Me”

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=837TfaxW99M

    in fact lots of Adrian Belew in general, but then he used so many pedals it’s often hard to tell exactly what’s going on. I’ve always loved the really nasty tone he gets on this track, from around 1:30 in – I’m not sure if there’s a ring mod in there, but if not, I’d sure like to know what gives that nastiness!

    Adrian Belew “Paint The Road”
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lKr_3dR6b_o

  • jeremy

    of course most Brits will know the sound of the ring mod best as it was what provided the voice of the Daleks in Dr Who; and those of us in UK of a certain age will remember this well too…

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uKt-KR1TsRg

  • ZZ Top “Cheap Sunglasses,” Jeff Beck “Come Dancing” – or am I mistaken?

  • In my previous bands, I haven’t been able to talk the other guys into letting me use them for even a second haha. But they are fun to play with. I don’t own one at the moment, but I’ve been thinking I might have to get a Way Huge Ringworm, that thing is cool.

  • Wow, Dawn is one hell of a drummer. Great tracks and sick tones!

  • mngiza

    1) Jan Hammer, as mentioned. When I took my dad to see the original Mahavishnu Orchestra in 1971 (front row seats – he liked it) Hammer had an E-H Frequency Analyzer stacked on his Fender Rhodes piano. On certain uptempo numbers he’d play right-handed solos while adjusting the effect knobs to vary the sound.

    2) Nice originals, Mr. Gore. Funky drummer!

    • joe

      Synth into a Frequency Analyzer? Damn, that must have been an unholy racket!

      • Peter

        When I saw Jan Hammer doing it, it was Fender Rhodes into ring mod (Frequency Analyzer? I wasn’t close enough to see). He could bend notes twisting the knob, and a variety of harder edge sounds. This was before Jan got a mini-moog.

  • Peter

    No one’s mentioned Frank Zappa, probably the most prolific ring modulator user (abuser) of all the name brand guitarists. I believe he even had them built into some of his guitars. Green Ringer perhaps.

    • Digital Larry

      I normally mention Frank Zappa even out of context, just to annoy Joe . But as it turns out the Green Ringer is not a ring modulator – it’s a full wave rectifier. They can get some similar tones, but the Green Ringer doesn’t have any controls for the carrier frequency.

      I recall FZ’s Guitar Player interview where he mentioned having a Green Ringer built into his guitar. Can you identify any of Frank’s recording where he’s using this?

      That said, George Duke used a ring modulator on his electric piano during ’72-’73 with Frank.

  • Guitarmatt

    Wow, thanks for this post. I’ve been using Mainstage for a while when practicing at home, I teach at a music school and keep my amp and pedals there. I’d never known you could use a ring mod for trem. I noticed you can adjust the feedback up and down to add or remove a percussive accent to the rise of the trem.

    BTW, do you know of any video or article series that gives a good rundown of using Mainstage with guitar? The web is loaded with synth oriented tutorials, but I haven’t found anything good for guitar. Mainstage seems like a really powerful tool, but I haven’t used it for anything more than practicing on my own because it’s a bit unintuitive and I never really know what’s going to happen when I tweak setting and click from one patch to another, etc…

  • I do love me some ring modulator, probably due to youthful exposure to science fiction movie soundtracks and experimental synth music. I have a 2000s-era reissue of the EHX Frequency Analyzer which I use quite a bit, both on guitar and in an effect pedal feedback loop project. For a big chunk of 2003, I was playing guitar through the laptop using a standalone Max/MSP patch called Girl (developed by Peter Nyboer, who went on to found Livid Instruments). Great little patch. I set up four or more parallel long delays with different delay lengths and slow decays. I kept one channel untreated, but the rest were ring modulated to different frequencies, often chosen for their relationship to the key I was playing in. It was great–I could fade in a note and then get these incredible rrrrRRRRRRRRRRRRRs. Sadly, an OS change of some kind killed the patch permanently–it died onstage when I changed a delay value, and would crash immediately on launch after that. (I finished the gig with Ableton Live, which I’d been getting into, and still use today, with ring mod, even.)

    Friends swear by their Moogerfoogers for their ability to cover the spectrum from tremolo to shortwave interference; I’d love to pick up one of those as well. (Though Live’s bundled pitch shifter plugin covers a lot of that too.)

  • Vic7ron

    I just discovered what a ring modulator is last night and already it has become a bit of an obsession. I think the Mars Volta may use them quite a bit. There is one instance in particular I am really wondering about in the beginning of the song “Miranda, that ghost just isn’t holy anymore.” Is the effect on the vocals a RM? It sounds kind of daleky.

    I really would like to build a passive one but I am having a hell of a time trying to find the components various diy’s recommend. What I have in mind is to generate the waveforms using my comptuer and the oscillators in Reason, then output them into the RM while I play guitar, possibly even use it for some vocals. One I build will probably be noisy, but I figure I can use a volume pedal to cut the output when I am not playing. Does anyone see any issues with this plan? and does anyone know of a good supplier for components? I have had no luck finding LT44 or TM014 signal transformers.

  • Vic7ron

    That Mars Volta song has 4 parts, its about 1 minute into Miranda, that ghost just isn’t holy anymore Part B Pour another icepick. If it is actually a RM, I have a feeling it would take a really low input for that effect, possibly below 20Hz. Most transformers I find don’t handle signal levels below 20 hz.

  • Maurice

    I listened to the first part of that and it sounds like a vibrato’s (pitch modulation) being applied to the wordless vocals–pitch being modulated by some regular wave input. Ring modulation’s a bit different–you do get pitch alteration, but not a moving pitch change, unless you alter the carrier frequency. Another way of thinking about it is to think of your second post: below 20Hz, a ring modulator is a tremolo (volume modulator) on the input signal. The Moog MF-102 ring mod actually does this–at low carrier frequencies, it’s a tremolo. As that carrier frequency sweeps up above 20, you get the classic “robot” ring mod on vocals. The Dalek sound (I think) can be achieved with a sine wave carrier at 30Hz.

    So I don’t think the effect you’re hearing is classic ring modulation, but instead a pitch modulation, like one would get from altering the delay frequency on a delay pedal. The old Ibanez digital modulation delay did this, and I’m sure others do.

    In any case, if you’re incorporating computer at all, you could get started with ring modulation by “building” your own ring modulator in a free program like Pure Data–there’s even a ready-made ring mod patch. Download Pd-extended here: http://puredata.info and a good manual here: http://flossmanuals.net/pure-data/ More audio theory than you probably want can be found in Miller S. Puckette’s book, which is quite expensive in dead-tree form, but a free download from his site: http://crca.ucsd.edu/~msp/techniques.htm

    Good luck! Even though it’s not the effect you’re referencing, it’s a great effect.

    • joe

      Thanks, Maurice — great info, and a great explanation.:)

    • Vic7ron

      Thanks a lot, that was very helpful. I am still very interested in using a ring mod with guitar, I like the effect in the videos posted above. I’ll start by messing around with that program you suggested before I attempt to build one. I’ll check out the book as well. If there is more theory in it than I could want, I’m sure there is plenty of info that I will find useful.

      • Great! Glad to help. I should note–having now actually looked–that if you download Pd-ext, there’s a help browser, and within the Pure Data/03.Audio Examples is A09.Frequency Mod. That’s the ring modulator example. The FLOSS manual walks you through building a simple one, and uses the Daleks as an example, in fact. Good luck!

  • Masuto

    Good examples: Joe Zawinul on Miles’ Bitches Brew-another great example of ring mod vs fender rhodes.. George duke might have taken a cue cos it was one of the “in” Sounds of fusion..also The Silhouettes (Brazil) instrumental that i cant recall the name, and Emil Richard’s pretty frantic live blues (cant recall the name) with bells

  • Masuto

    Ok… the Silhouettes – Fonky First
    Emil Richards- Blues for Hari

  • Cubes

    The ending theme to South Park is the first time I heard ring modulation. I read somewhere that Larry Lalonde used the DOD Gonkulator on that track. He’s also had both the EHX Ring Thing and the Wayhuge ringworm on recent Primus tours, though he doesn’t seem to use either of them much.

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