The Sonotone Black box

Sonic sorcery in the '60s
The only known recording in the Sonobeat archives that uses the Sonotone Black Box

By the end of 1968, at not quite two years old, Austin, Texas-based Sonobeat Records has enough experience under its belt to begin experimenting with new recording techniques to complement the new sounds that progressive Central Texas bands, like New Atlantis, are developing. In that pursuit, Sonobeat producer Rim Kelley (Bill Josey Jr.) builds a bizarre sound processing device – that Sonobeat co-founder Bill Josey Sr. dubs the "Sonotone Black Box" – and uses it to turn Jim Mings' lead guitar into a fire-breathing Chimera in New Atlantis' inspired and incandescent interpretation of Fire.

Whenever the Joseys demonstrate the Black Box, the response is wild speculation about how it works and appeals to "open it up", but neither Rim nor Bill Sr. ever reveals its inner secrets, so the enigmatic Black Box gains quite a reputation around Austin. But, oddly enough, for all its notoriety, Sonobeat never uses the Black Box on any of its commercial releases.

An analog ancestor of today's digital audio processors, the Black Box accepts two inputs – usually a guitar and "something else", often a microphone – from which it creates one morphed output. Back in the '60s, the Black Box's sound is nothing short of sonic sorcery. For New Atlantis' recording of Fire, the Black Box inputs are lead guitar, tapped at its amp speaker, and a variable sine wave audio oscillatorAn audio oscillator produces frequencies – in the form of sine, square, or triangle waves – within the audio frequency range, about 16 Hz to 20 kHz. A variable audio oscillator has a control to adjust the wave's output in realtime throughout the audio frequency spectrum. – a simple pure audio tone generator – "played" in sync with the guitar. The results range from low growl – created with low frequencies on the sine wave ocscillator – to screaming banshee – created with higher frequencies. The Black Box is a surprisingly simple ring modulator that uses just two small audio transformers and four diodes, built from a schematic Rim finds in an issue of Popular Electronics magazine. Like most magic, it's all about misdirection, which, after all, is why it's packaged in a sealed black box...

From the Sonobeat vault where it's been tucked away more than 50 years, we pull out a stereo trial mix-down of New Atlantis' Fire. This mix is intended to help balance the vocals, instrumental backing, and Black Box-ified lead guitar for the final release mix, but there ends up being no final release mix (alas, Sonobeat never releases any of New Atlantis' recordings). Some parts of the band's performance on Fire evoke Vanilla Fudge's 1967 hit You Keep Me Hanging On, but the sound really is distinctively New Atlantis'.

In addition to the Black Box-ified lead guitar on Fire, this track showcases many other recording and mixing techniques Sonobeat is beginning to use in ‘68, all of which are commonplace or even recording cliches in 2021, but in the late '60s are cutting edge: the kit is covered with six mikes, including one above and behind drummer Jay Meade to add an aural illusion of spacial breadth and depth; Mike Reid's Hammond B3 organ Leslie speaker box is double miked – one on the treble rotor and one on the bass rotor – and mixed to a wide stereo spread; the vocals are compressed to the point of occasional audible pumping; Danny Galindo's bass guitar is plugged directly into the mixing console (a technique commonly called "direct injection", since it completely bypasses the guitar amp and speaker box) for complete isolation from the other instruments; and the entire mix is equalized across nine frequency bands to thicken it into a wall of sound. The original session "take" goes on for almost seven minutes and is edited to just under five minutes for the trial mix. Both the recordings and mix are made in the wee early morning hours, a time that is itself magical to musicians, producers, and recording engineers, and the perfect time to apply the sonic sorcery of the Sonotone Black Box.

A Sonotone Black Box experiment with New Atlantis

The innocuous-looking "Sonotone Black Box"; innocuous, at least, until it's plugged in
Opening up the Black Box
It's an uncomplicated ring modulator using only two audio transformers and four diodes
Ring modulators heterodyne, or mix, two frequencies from different waveform sources; the output is the sum and difference of the two waveforms, such as the guitar and oscillator in the New Atlantis recording of Fire