Review – Complete Toy Museum from UVI
Take a look at one of the most amazing collections of sounds you’re likely to come across – beautifully recorded, lovingly processed and cleverly programmed.
by Warren Burt, Jan. 2018
In Australia, January is known as the silly season. That’s the time of the year when most businesses are on summer break, and not a lot of serious work gets done. In keeping with the spirit of the season, I thought that reviewing the UVI Complete Toy Museum might be appropriate – one of the subcategories of sounds is even called “Silly.” This is a collection of over 315 sampled “toy” instruments. It’s been around for years, but I felt it was time for a new look at it. Of course, the nostalgia value of the sounds would be there, but what delighted me was the comprehensiveness of the collection, the quality of the sampling, the sense of delight that, it seemed to me, the producers experienced while making the set, and lastly, and most surprisingly, the sheer sensuous beauty of many of the sounds.
The collection is huge – although it fits into a mere 12.5 GB. There are two subsets – Acoustic Toy Museum, and Electric Toy Museum. The Acoustic version is indeed acoustic sound makers, and the Electric set is over 90 instruments that mostly were battery powered and portable. In the interests of showing the scope of the collection, I’ll list here the subcategories of sounds. For the Acoustic set, there are Toy Pianos and Keys (incredibly comprehensive – for any other manufacturer this would constitute a saleable product on its own); Xylo and Metal; Children’s Bells; Toy Guitars; Music Boxes; Baby Drums; Baby Percussions; Melodicas and co; Blow Toys; Musical Gadgets; Ancient Automates; and Kindergarten. For the Electric set, the categories are Children (keyboard instruments with child sized keys); Developed (more sophisticated electronics); Drums and FX; Mini-Sampler; Musical Toys; Organ Basic; Silly; Small; Speech; and Style-o-phone (I had no idea there were so many instruments made on the Style-o-phone principle, and that they all sounded different from each other!). Some of these categories are pretty self-descriptive, but others hide a wealth of riches underneath a deceptively simple category name. The only way to experience the riches on offer here is to actually dive in and go through the collection instrument by instrument.
I had a number of these toys in my musical career, which in the 70s and 80s often involved performing with them. The tiny harmonica, giggle tubes, Magical Musical Thing, Texas Instruments Speak’n’Spell, Bee Gees Rhythm Machine, and the Muson Synth, as well as a number of small ukuleles, tubulongs, sets of tuned bells, moo toys, and others, have all been used in my pieces and performances. It’s a delight to discover these sounds again. And they’re all sampled in amazing better-than-real fidelity, which not only uncovers hidden beauties in the sounds, it also lovingly preserves some of the essential imperfections that gave the sounds their distinctive character.
The Magical Musical Thing, for example, was a monophonic synthesizer, with a membrane touch keyboard (no moving parts) in a plastic case. Designed by Serge Tcherepnin and Rich Gold, and marketed by Mattel, it had a speaker inside its plastic body. This gave it a particular nasal filtered timbre. The engineers obviously placed the microphone very close to the loudspeaker, because the sample set had that distinctive nasal, “cardboardy” sound. One difference, though – the tuning. I had three Magical Musical Things, and they all were in different found tunings. The UVI MMT, of course, starts off in twelve-note equal temperament. Most of the instruments come with two presets. One has the samples mapped across the keyboard and tuned to equal temperament. But there is a second preset – with an “-o” at the end (as in Magical-Tone-o), which have the original samples mapped to individual keys, preserving their original tuning and sound. In the case of the Magical Musical Thing, using the “-o” preset will allow you to hear the unique and idiosyncratic tuning of the particular instrument they sampled. And if you’re using these samples in Falcon, of course, you can tune them to any scale you like.
Some of the instruments have not aged well, and we can be grateful for that. For example, in the Silly category is an instrument called Blue Tunes which, from the picture, looks like a kind of Smurf-based musical tune player from 1982. The straight preset reveals an instrument that sounds like a generic square-wave organ, but the “-o” preset has each sound recorded on its own, and all the warbling, scratching, and breakups of the original tones, perhaps produced by the decay of the membrane keyboard, are there in full glory. I laughed out loud listening to these sounds – they were charming in their complete magnificent inadequacy, challenging our notions of what a proper, useable musical tone might be.
For every one of these instruments, the SOUND is there – in beautiful fidelity. What is not there, of course, is the physicality of the instrument. Somehow, when I play a sampled viola on a keyboard, or with an algorithmic controller, even though I have at times been a violist (not a very good one, but still … ), I don’t miss the physicality of the instrument, and getting just the sound with a keyboard or other controller seems fine to me. But these toys, which I played in so many performances – somehow having just the sound – no matter how beautifully recorded – feels somewhat inadequate – something is missing. Although I remember that when I was performing with these instruments, I often thought that I would love it if somehow the sound could be abstracted, and I could have them in any tuning I wished. Funnily enough, at this same time I was working occasionally with the Fairlight CMI, and I COULD have sampled the instruments and had them in any desired equal-interval tuning, but somehow didn’t. In the early 80s, working with advanced electronics was one thing, and working with toys and cheap technology was another. (This changed with the advent of the Casio SK1 – a toy sampler – in 1986.) Now that mixing the two up is so easy (and in preparation for this review, I did try out many of these sampled toys in alternative tunings and was delighted with the result), I’m realizing the importance of the physical nature of the toys. For example, one thing that you could do with the Magical Musical Thing was swing it around your head. Three people doing this made a wonderful racket, and it looked amazing (and amazingly silly) as well. Swinging three laptops around your heads while playing these sounds would also be amazing, but it would be a quite different experience, I’m sure! What we have with the sampler is again, the simulacrum, as the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard would have it, or his colleague Guy Debord’s “spectacle,” where everything is transformed into its representation. The sampler normalizes everything, flattening every instruments’ unique physicality into the same model – a computer with a keyboard attached, played through some wooden boxes placed ideally in a studio environment. This model of experience may be accepted uncritically by most readers of this magazine, but I think we all need a continual reminder of both how much we gain, and how much we lose by accepting this technological model as one kind of “normal.” Holding the tiny harmonica, not even 2 inches long, in your hand, and using the most delicate of breath to produce its fragile tone, was one particular experience. Playing the SOUND of the instrument on a keyboard through loudspeakers many times its size, regardless of the fidelity of the recording (and the recording is astonishing in its fidelity), is quite another. (And how appropriate (and appropriational!) that these issues come up yet again when dealing with such elegantly composed French instruments like these UVI sample sets.)
And staying within the French intellectual sphere, it was in the late 40s and early 50s that Pierre Schaeffer, one of the founders of technological music, tried valiantly to abstract sounds from their sources. He called the kind of listening required to work with music technology “reduced listening,” and it’s a technique I frequently teach to audio engineering and composition students. So many of these toy sounds are loaded with nostalgia – even if one hasn’t heard that particular instrument before, the type of sound is just loaded with associations, real and imagined. Schaeffer’s student, Luc Ferrari, was the pioneer here, developing a kind of anecdotal composing, where the origins of the sounds were embraced and even worked with compositionally. With these sounds, there are moments when the sounds do become abstract, and in some of those moments, an astonishing beauty is revealed, something that goes far beyond the toy origins of the sound. For me, this often happens with the metal based instruments, such as toy pianos or various bell like instruments. At their extreme ranges, when struck hard, and recorded close, low, phantom tones are heard well below the ostensible fundamental of the sound. These samples can be taken and applied to make instruments that really are reduced to an abstract sound, and a new beauty is the result. I find myself switching between the reduced listening of Pierre Schaeffer and the anecdotal listening of Luc Ferrari, often within one musical phrase.
Each instrument is sampled over its natural range, and is also extended over a narrow range (two chromatic octaves, usually). As mentioned above, there are usually two sample sets per instrument – one over a couple of chromatic octaves, and the other with the original samples at their original pitches. Additionally, many of the samples have loops and phrases which were recorded from the originals. For example, a music box might have some loops of the tune it originally played, plus a preset with the sounds of the box’s tines sampled individually and another preset which applies those sounds to a chromatic scale.
Since the sound sources are toys, which are small, the tessitura is usually quite high. However, since these are samples, it’s a simple matter to take the lowest sample (on the Edit page in Falcon) and drag its lower limit down four or five octaves, and explore the world of massively down-transposed toy samples. The many bell sounds in this set are especially effective when taken down a couple or more octaves. Some of those sounds are absolutely gorgeous.
The originals of the toys are drawn from quite a collection. Some of them are from the Musee des Arts Decoratifs in Paris, and others were collected from who-knows-where. Some of the Samplers and “Developed” electronic toys featured very crude sampling. At the time, through their own internal loudspeakers, one was very forgiving of the “bad” sampling. Then, for a while, the sound of the crude sampling was simply inadequate for any serious musical purposes. Now however, when hearing some of these timbres, they shine through as interesting sound sources in their own right. There is nostalgic fun in these sounds – some are very funny indeed, and some were very wittily played in the sampling – but there is also great beauty and poetry in this set. It’s that poetry that ultimately charms me, beyond any particular instrument or another, reminding me of a quote from the American poet Mark Strand; “The miraculous hours of childhood wander in darkness.”
Pictures and brief descriptions of each toy appear in both the pdf manual and on the “Info” page in the sampler. Some of these descriptions are quite witty, and show that they UVI crew had a lot of fun when assembling this set. As well, each description gives the national origin and date of the toy in question. One longs for more complete information on each toy – maybe made available on a website, but the descriptions do give one information about each toy that is quite adequate.
At the full retail price of $399 USD, this set will probably be used mainly by, say, film composers, or people whose music making budget allows them the luxury of exploring resources such as this. But UVI does have occasional sales – during December 2017, the UVI website and Sweetwater were both offering the set for $188. So if you’re interested, but are on a limited budget, keep watching for sales. Although one could indeed make “legit” music with these samples (as I imagine a lot of film composers will), it strikes me that one of the challenges this set of samples give us is to make, or imagine, a kind of music where the unique physicality, and the unique social interactions that these instruments embody could somehow find a way to shape the music we make with them, so that what is made with these samples is not just more business as usual, but a unique music that comes from, and is informed by, the inner essence and psychological realities of these instruments. If you do decide to invest in this set, I can almost guarantee that you won’t be disappointed, and will, in fact, make many wonderful sonic discoveries. Like me, you might even come to love these sounds, in all of their fragility, funkiness, and uniqueness.
Details: 12.5 GB of samples, 315 instruments, from UVI.net. $399 USD, (although in December it was on sale for $188 at both the UVI website and at Sweetwater.). Requires UVI Workstation (free) or Falcon. iLok account required (dongle optional).
More information here:
Check out this web page if only to have a look at the many delightful-to-look-at toy instruments and sound-makers used to create Complete Toy Museum.