Julia Truchsess: Electronic Drum Pioneer of EH

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Recently I've had the pleasure of corresponding with Julia Truchsess, who worked at EH in the late 70's to the early 80's.  She has been very gracious in providing an extensive biography and a list of products she designed for EH.  Without further ado, here's her story:


 

 

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Julia Truchsess in 2009 (photo by Frank Simtob)
 

 

 

I moved to New York City from Wisconsin in the Fall of 1976 at the age of twenty, with a band called The Invisible Man in which I played bass guitar, to seek fame and fortune as a rock star. We rented a top-floor 2,500 square-foot loft on West 25th St, with skylights and panoramic views of the Empire State Building, for $400 a month - those were the days! The Patty Smith Band rehearsed two floors below us. Eventually I needed a job, and our drummer had left the New York Times help wanted classifieds open to the page for “auto parts”, in which he had experience. Immediately preceding that section was an ad for “Audio Technician”. Having been an electronics hobbyist since I was about eight years old, with a particular interest in audio and music, the ad caught my eye - plus the address was only three blocks away!

The employer was of course E-H, and although I had no professional experience to speak of, Mike took a chance on me and I was put to work as Irwin Kornfeld’s assistant, tuning the rather finicky analog delay devices in Memory Mans as they came off the assembly line. After a few weeks of that drudgery I’d proven my abilities to the extent that Mike let me pursue a rather ambitious project of my own – designing a guitar synthesizer. I was given an office and the result, about a year later, was the EH-8000, the most complex product the company had at the time ever produced. I’m very proud of that device to this day, some thirty+ years later. Its tracking was faster than any guitar synth on the market and many that have followed. It was used by Steve Howe of Yes and Colin White of Metro and Holly and the Italians. It was entirely analog and used a boatload of op-amps that unfortunately required occasional tweaking of trimpots to stay in tune. A huge contribution to the development of the guitar synthesizer came from David Cockerell: an amazing yet simple circuit that could extract an almost pure sine wave from the extremely complex waveforms produced by a guitar. It’s one of the cleverest circuits I’ve ever encountered in my career. An unfortunate manufacturing disaster occurred with the EH-8000 – either before or after soldering, the boards were dunked in a degreaser or flux remover or something that removed the protective anti-corrosion material on the contacts of all 20-plus slide switches on the product’s front panel. The switches became dodgy as a result, and returns were frequent.

About this time The Invisible Man were becoming discouraged with our lack of success in the New York club scene. Punk and New Wave were happening but we were a bombastic prog-rock trio in the vein of King Crimson and Cream, with songs running 10 – 20 minutes. We decided that the UK might provide more receptive audiences and in mid-1978 I told Mike I was leaving the company to move to London. His response was “Don’t quit, go over and open a distribution and service center for me.” Which I did – I secured office and warehouse space, and hired a repair technician and manager. I left my New York loft in the hands of the late George Kaufman, another E-H employee and close friend who’d recently returned from setting up a distribution and repair center in Toronto.

While in England I continued to design new products. While effects are fun, I’ve always loved creating new instruments, particularly electronic percussion devices. The song “Ring My Bell” and its use of the Synare electronic drum had blown open a whole new market and I looked for a way for E-H to get into it. Mike had always been reluctant to invest in new tooling for products, so one design constraint was that anything I came up with had to go into the traditional E-H sheet-metal boxes. And of course, it had to be inexpensive. I ended up using a crystal microphone glued to the underside of the sheet metal, with a piece of leather glued onto the top as a playing surface. Add a simple swept oscillator circuit and the Space Drum was born. The device became a platform for a number of follow-on products: the Super Space Drum and the Rolling Thunder, designed by Howard Davis, and the Crashpad and Sequencer Drum designed by myself. I really loved the Crashpad – it used a ridiculously inexpensive filter circuit made up only of discrete transistors and diodes that was capable of producing some really rich and “dirty” sounds when the Q was cranked up. You could put white noise into it or if you turned the Q up high enough it would turn into an oscillator. It had an external audio input and a flexible sweep controller and was a really versatile device.

In 1980 I came back from England, but I found myself morally unable to displace George Kaufman from the loft, and I didn’t want to share it with him and his brother David, who rehearsed there with their band The Nails. Mike and I had become good friends outside of work and he often invited me to join him on fishing trips on his boat in Montauk. While I’d been in England he’d purchased the former headquarters and manufacturing facility of the Otis Elevator Company on Manhattan’s west side, a mammoth building that took up a full city block north-south. Mike had grand plans for his top designers there and since I had nowhere to live on my return from the UK, I was given the keys to the building and one of the Otis VP’s hardwood-paneled offices as a bedroom. Cockerell had the President’s office I think :-) I have only dim memories of that brief period but it was very special and magical, with a distinctly unreal feel to it.

Shortly thereafter E-H became overextended financially and Mike had to sell the Otis building. Japanese and domestic competitors were eating away at his market with much more reliable products. I found a loft on 20th street in what is now the trendy “Flatiron District”, around the corner from the church that became the famous Limelight disco, and a few blocks from the factory on 23rd St. I lived and worked there; Mike paid the rent.

Now that we had a line of percussion sound generators, I figured we needed a controller to hook them all up to. E-H was having a good run with the DRM-16 drum machine but I wanted something a bit more open-ended and creative. I came up with the Clockworks “rhythm synthesizer”. It fit into the standard sheet-metal box, and used analog circuitry that acted “quasi-digitally” in that it could divide the frequency of a master beat clock to produce half notes, quarter notes, etc., but since it was analog you could also get it right on the borderline between divisors so that it would sometimes divide by three, and sometimes four, for example. This produced some amazing polyrhythmic patterns, to say the least. The Clockworks didn’t have any sound generation internally – you used it to trigger CrashPads and Sequencer Drums. You could daisy-chain or cross-trigger any number of them, you could sum any of their outputs with simple junction boxes or Y-cords, and with two or three Clockworks, a few Crashpads and a couple of Sequencer Drums you could produce some absolutely astounding stuff. I own a Sequencer Drum but have been unable to locate either a Clockworks or Crashpad and would love to do so someday.

Mike had opened the 48th St, E-H Hall of Science next to Manny’s Music, and was very big into LED art and jewelry at the time. Bob Bednarz had come up with the “Domino Theory”, an objet d’art consisting of a grid of LED’s that responded to sound in a translucent red tube. I expanded on the concept (and packaging) with the “Random Element”, a gizmo that would “talk back” to you in electronic beeps and boops whenever you triggered it with sound. I also contributed what became the name for the entire line of blinky products: “Art Lumo” (or was it “Art Lumeau”?). (ed. note: Art Lumo is correct)

E-H’s fortunes continued to decline and in 1981 Mike told me he couldn’t pay the rent on my 20th St. studio any longer, but that I could take over the lease on his loft on 31st St. where Bednarz had been living and working. I moved there and after a week or so of cleaning out the unbelievable amount of junk Bob had accumulated, fixed it up into a nice living and working space. I continued to work on more electronic art concepts but Mike wanted me to come to the factory and do production work, which didn’t appeal to me much. We parted on good terms and I found work the next day with a company around the corner that developed toys and consumer electronics, which became my field for the next  23 years.

Mike and I continued to see each other often socially. In 1985 I moved to City Island in the Bronx, where I got my own boat and could take him fishing for a change. In 1986 I invented and patented a wah-wah controlled by a light sensor held between one’s teeth – the amount of light hitting the sensor depended on how open your lips were, so you could actually make your intrument go “wah” by making the shape of a “wah” sound with your mouth. Mike loved it and dubbed it the “Soul Kiss”. I produced them in my bedroom office/lab and Mike marketed them under the New Sensor brand – I think it may have been New Sensor’s first product. Unfortunately the product was not understood by the trade and didn’t receive any promotion or push by the stores, and as a result it didn’t sell. The AIDS epidemic didn’t help either, even though we provided disposable covers for the mouthpiece...

In addition to being a very dear friend, Mike has been mentor, confidant, father figure, inspiration, and patron saint to me. He probably doesn’t remember giving me a photo of himself in his twenties, holding a mahi-mahi he’d caught, but I long ago framed that black-and-white photocopy and it’s been displayed in a place of honor in every office I’ve had since.

 

Product Designs

  • EH-8000 Guitar Synthesizer ‘77-78
  • Space Drum - ‘79
  • Crashpad - ‘80
  • Sequencer Drum - ‘80
  • Clockworks - ‘80
  • Random Element - ‘80?(ed. note: likely an unreleased product)
  • Super Space Drum II -'81 (I’m not sure this was ever produced)
  • Soul Kiss

Links

Julia's Homepage

Pragmatic Designs