Lord of The Ring Modulators

Article by Timothy Campbell with input from Gerry Campbell

Jon Lord keyboard ring modulator

While Deep Purple were often frowned upon by some of the rock cognoscenti at my school, come the 1972 UK tour most of them still dashed off to buy tickets, and one lad who had looked down on Deep Purple before was getting all enthusiastic about them the next day at school, and wanted to know what the little box of tricks on top of the organ was, the gizmo in question making ‘funny noises’ at various points in the show. I managed to bluff him with something about a phaser unit, but in truth was as much in the dark as he was. So, it’s a relief that somebody out there shared our puzzlement and has been able to shed a little light on one of the gizmos. Just a shame it’s taken over 35 years and I can’t earn any brownie points from the sixth formers with it…  There is more from Jon and Roger on the kit in the upcoming book Fire In The Sky, the Story of Machine Head.  [Simon Robinson]

TIM – The first record I ever heard by Deep Purple was Made In Japan. After sitting speechless having listened to THAT guitar solo (Highway Star) and then getting my eardrums pierced with the vocals on Child In Time, it’s quite remarkable that I was able to take in sides 2, 3 and 4 (in those far off vinyl days). But I did and an immediate favourite part of the album for me was during Space Truckin’, the riveting middle section with Jon Lord making all kinds of weird and wonderful noises with his organ (!). The bit which really got me going came just before the 10 minute mark, where the organ goes from relatively normal whooshes and notes to what seemed to me to be a full on vision of the musical future, Lord producing sounds that couldn’t possibly be coming from his Hammond.
Further evidence of this other-worldly strangeness can be heard even more clearly at the very start of Lazy. After Gillan’s intro, there immediately follows a high pitched whistling noise, which drops in pitch (something you can’t easily do with a Hammond), then seems to spilt into two ‘wobbling’ sounds (we’re having to make up a vocabulary as we go along here), before blasting into a startling ‘bleep and booster’ type rush up the scale (hands up if you remember Bleep And Booster on Blue Peter?)(Er, I’ve got the TV tie-in book here somewhere. Ed). After the opening minute Lord then switches back to the basic Hammond (at the ‘louie louie’ bit).
At this time in my life (1978, I was 13) I was used to seeing people on the Whistle Test playing Moog synthesizers and the like, so I knew that pitch bending was achieved with a turny wheel at the side of the keyboard. However I was also aware that Made In Japan was done in 1972, and that on the photographs which decorate the sleeve there appeared to be no sign of such ‘modern’ gear.
Having an elder brother who was and still is a self confessed ‘noiseician’ (he makes a racket for a living) was handy, as I was able to ask him just what the hell was Lord using. As it turned out, Gerry had not only the answer, but also the equipment in question – a Maestro Ring Modulator. I leave it to him to explain the workings of this device, his experience with one, and also the terrible tragedy that occurred…

Jon Lord keyboard ring modulator

GERRY – For my sins I can explain precisely what the device Jon Lord had gaffer-taped to the top of his Hammond organ as seen in various vintage video clips and photographs was.
You may not be able to see the manufacturer’s label or much else other than a couple of switches and bare sockets beneath the cuffs of Lord’s sweeping suede-jacketed gestures as his Hammond momentarily transforms into a “found lost chord” machine but what he activates at that precise moment is in fact a legendary Maestro Ring Modulator.
This mains operated device came with extra foot pedals to plug into the sockets visible on the front edge of the casing. The sound output from his Hammond will have been routed straight into the back edge of the device which featured in and out mono sockets. The top of the unit had three sliders and two switches. One of the switches lets the processed signal out into the world while the other is simply a pitch range switch affecting the overall “frequency mashing” the unit performs.
Cue up any of the familiar video clips where he is tinkering with the device (see the list below) and you will recognize the strange sound. As he adjusts the pitch slider on the top of the Maestro Ring Modulator this changes the frequency of the “carrier” signal used internally to perform strange “sum and difference” mathematical work on the incoming sounds which dramatically alter the original frequencies of the Hammond organ. The other sliders are simply for effect depth and output volume.
What makes me so regretful and  qualified to comment so knowledgeably about the Maestro Ring Modulator? Well, I too possessed one of these now rare devices, purchased around 1979 from a local guitar shop. I’d been eyeing it up for some time and used to try it out every time I went in the store. Then one day I saw they’d reduced the price from well over £100 to a mere £25 and I pounced on it. I argued about not wanting the extra foot pedals which adjusted the pitch and depth, and snapped it up at the bargain price.
My guitar now could sound like a set of giant church bells falling down stairs. Until one day I tried opening the unit up and adjusting things inside, foolishly attempting what is nowadays called “circuit bending”.
Pop it went, up in smoke. Destroyed forever. By me. Damn!
You can nowadays get software emulators but they just don’t give that same sound. You lose the slight hum of the carrier frequency interfering with your amp and any other effects. Nor do you seem to get such marvellous overtones, it’s not the same. These units fetch big collectors prices today for a good reason.

ring modulator maestro

It would seem that Jon Lord got the Ring Modulator fitted in 1972. He doesn’t use it on the Denmark March 1st 1972 concert (video), or the BBC In Concert radio broadcast on March 9th either. However it can be seen in the promo video for Never Before, now generally agreed to have been filmed at Fairfield Halls on March 12th.  It was there at the famous Rainbow Theatre shows at the end of June 1972 (see photo below) and can clearly be heard on the Made In Japan album recorded in August.
It can be seen in the New York February 73 footage (in Space Truckin’ again) and if you watch the California Jam DVD (April 1974) you’ll see the gadget in question gaffer taped to the top of the Hammond. Jon Lord uses it most obviously at this show during his short snatch of Lazy, but clearly his new toys (the ARP synthesisers) were more to his taste at this time – he uses these instead of the RM unit during Space Truckin (albeit playing them with his knees!).
The ARP was also used to create A200 from Burn, but the sound is something of an acquired taste – a bit too lightweight to my ears, not nearly as raunchy as the Hammond through a Marshall cabinet.
I had thought that he’d ditched the Modulator after the Burn tour in 1974; he certainly didn’t use it during the final Mk 3 gigs in April 1975 (as a listen to Live In Paris will confirm). However, a recent blast through the Mk 4 Live In Tokyo 1975 and Live In California 1976 CDs reveals the ring modulator it in all its glory once more. Have a listen to (again) Lazy on both discs, the presence of the effects unit is quite obvious.
As Gerry pointed out earlier, these units are now highly sought after, and although it’s possible to get modern digital versions of them, it’s not the same – just ask Jeff Beck. He used a ring modulator on his superb Wired album back in 1976, and dusted it down again on You Had It Coming in 2001 (he has continued to use it live right up to the 2008 gigs at Ronnie Scott’s which are now out on DVD). In a recent interview with Beck’s guitar tech, it was revealed that the one he uses was given to him in the 70’s by Jan Hammer. This fact is particularly resonant as this could well be the one that Hammer used on Billy Cobham’s Spectrum album, which also featured Tommy Bolin. Given that at the same Ronnie Scott’s concert Beck was using his ring modulator while covering Stratus off the Spectrum album sort of makes a singularity of rock n roll ring modulator lineage – or something!
It’s not known if Tommy Bolin ever tried feeding his equally far out Echoplex unit through Jon’s ring modulator, but I have no doubt the results would have been Earth shattering.

Deep Purple Rainbow Theatre June 30. 1972

Deep Purple Rainbow Theatre June 30. 1972

SIMON – My thanks to the two Campbells for the article. I have seen shots from Whitesnake days where it seems to be still in place. While software emulators are indeed around now, today several companies are once again producing analogue versions of the unit. Indeed you can even buy a Maestro branded unit, but these have nothing in common with the originals, the name having been taken over by a Singapore based manufacturer of guitars. There is however a unit called the Black Cat RM which is widely available. The circuitry is based on the original device and in use it gets the thumbs up from a lot of musicians, though it looks nothing like as cool as the original. Moog have launched the Moogerfooger Ring Modulator, which they advertise as “uncontaminated by the digital world”!
As for the origins of the device, a ring modulator is a simple unit that can be used to create unusual sounds from the output of an instrument, be it guitar, organ, etc. It effectively takes two signals and produces a signal containing the sum and differences of those frequencies. These frequencies will typically be non-harmonic, so the ring modulator can create some very dissonant sounds.
Most ring modulators only have one input, say from the organ or guitar, with the other signal created via an internal sine wave oscillator (though in theory there is no reason why two external signals cannot be used).
The ring modulator was first heard during the sixties when it was used in avant garde electronic music but anyone of a certain age would probably first be exposed to it while watching Doctor Who, as the effect was used to warp the voice of The Daleks.
Scholars seem generally to credit the invention to Harald Bode, who devised a number of other early signal processing devices. Bode developed his ring modulator for Moog in 1963.
Jon Lord himself talked about the unit in an interview with Modern Keyboard magazine around 1989.
“My Hammond has a ring modulator from the old Gibson Maestro company. I bought six of them as soon as they stopped them. I’m only on the second one. I still have four brand-new ones left in their original packages. The ring modulator operates as the central volume for the whole organ. There’s volume, pitch and modulation controls on it. If I really want to crank it up, the ring modulator gives me the overdrive sound”.
Some folk even put online plans to recreate the exact model Lord used, with a list of parts and where to get them, including the circuit board, so you can build your own! Sadly the link I had for this is no longer live, but a search may turn it up.

Photo courtesy of John Ruk. Thanks also to Stephen Clare, Tonny Steenhagen, Tim Summers.

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16 Responses to “Lord of The Ring Modulators”

  1. Mathias Says:

    The RM was on duty with Jon throughout his Whitesnake years and early MkII reunion years (on the top left of the Hammond next to the Moog Opus 3 (Whitesnake ’83/’84) and Minimoog (’85) and after that the Yamaha DX7 (87)) He stopped using it in the 90s.
    By the way: the “explosion” sound while ‘dropping/shaking’ the Hammond results from the shock the spring reverb gets after ‘landing’.

    • simon robinson Says:

      Thanks for this Mathias. We’d not really thought to look at his post-Purple use, I don’t recall hering it much in his early Whitesnake career at gigs.

      • Mathias Says:

        He did use it, but “only” in one of the climaxes in his solo spot – accompanied by the thunder of the spring reverb (I have quite a lot of bootleg proof).
        I have to admit that I recently bought one myself from the U.S. that unfortunately needs service. It’s of course planned to be used on my Hammond XK3c (to take a leaf out of Jon’s book!)

      • simon robinson Says:

        Sound a great idea Mathias; my brother had a similar unit but said when the circuit board went he couldn’t get it repaired. If it’s the same model Jon used could you send us some clear photos for the Machine Head book?

  2. Monsoon Harvard Says:

    Very interesting. I would hope that Don Airey and the band got a hold of one of those 4 extra ring modulators that Jon Lord had put away which he wasn’t using. After all, it is a necessary element of the Deep Purple sound.

  3. Bill Says:

    Excellent article, Sonic Attack indeed.

  4. Les Hedger Says:

    Stuff like this is what made DP Mk 2 the GREATEST Rock band of all time! Sorry Beatles, Stones and Zep fans!

  5. Jeff Breis Says:

    In Lemmy’s autobiography, White Line Fever, he talks about the ring modulator:

    “…it was actually an audio generator that went out of human hearing at both high and low end. If it went up, you would lose your balance and fall down and vomit; if it went down, you shit your pants. You could make people have epileptic fits with this contraption. On stage, Dikmik could pick out the audience members who were susceptible. When we were playing in Hawkwind together, I’d go to him and say, ‘Any good ‘uns?’ He’d say, ‘Yeah, that guy there. See that?’ And he’d twist the knob – hrummmmm – and the guy would start flopping about. Amazing things you can do with sound.”

    Ah, the “no rules ’70s”, can’t ever replace those years.

    • simon robinson Says:

      Made me laugh Jeff! And also took me back to some of those 70s Hawkwind shows which were stupendous. And you’re right about some of the frequencies they tried pull on us. Mercifully my flares remained unsullied.

      • Jeff Breis Says:

        Lemmy also mentioned that during the shows, they would have the strobe light flashing slowly because that would really mess the heads up, a bonus extra to go with the music.

    • Jeff Breis Says:

      Sadly, Hawkwind’s Dikmik died the other day, 16 November 2017.
      Break out your Space Ritual LP in his honor, and treat the neighbors!

      • simon robinson Says:

        Thanks for the news Jeff, a real shame, a true innovator. I don’t need to break out the album really, it gets played still, one of my favourite bands.

  6. Les Hedger Says:

    I wonder what it was like onstage when Jon was in full flight and used the Ring Modulator?

  7. Bernard Maasdijk Says:

    Extremely interesting article, thanks a lot for this. This (among other things) is the stuff for which I will continue to visit the DPAS site.

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