The Gear of Throbbing Gristle

Wreckers of civilization. Founders of new musical genres. Pioneers in experimental electronic music. Throbbing Gristle were all of these things and much more.

The group was born from the ashes of performance group COUM Transmissions and founded in 1975 by Genesis P-Orridge, Cosey Fanni Tutti, Chris Carter, and Peter "Sleazy" Christopherson. Over a period of five years, Throbbing Gristle released a series of uncompromising records that they called "industrial music." Their sound was unique, synthetic, effects-heavy, and often terrifying—a blueprint that would go on to inspire hundreds of future groups.

A lot of mystery still surrounds the machines behind the music of Throbbing Gristle. Although much of their equipment was store-bought and used by a lot of their contemporaries, there were a few key differences that ensured they didn’t really sound like anyone else.

Throbbing Gristle ‎– 20 Jazz Funk Greats

Even today, with so much past music being faultlessly recreated, their records are still largely unfathomable. This is due in large part to Chris Carter’s electronics knowledge, which enabled him to build, modify, and otherwise develop original instruments and effects.

In this piece, we’ll look at the equipment that Throbbing Gristle used in their first iteration (roughly the period from 1976-1981), including Carter’s unique creations and modifications.

20 Jazz and Funk Effects

Although Throbbing Gristle (TG) basically used the same instruments as everyone else—vocals, guitar, bass, and synthesizers—what set them apart was the way they processed everything with effects. Effects were not new in the late ‘70s, of course, but TG employed them almost as if each was an instrument in itself.

First and foremost, TG wouldn’t be TG without the Gristleizer—a homemade effects unit based around Roy Gwinn’s Guitar Effects Pedal circuit first published in Practical Electronics magazine in July of 1975. A half-rack box covered in Tolex, it had knobs for speed, depth, LFO shape, bias, and amount of effect. It also had a switch to change between VCF and VCA, and a power switch. It was powered by batteries.

"The basic unit was a voltage-controlled filter and voltage-controlled amp with an LFO," Carter told Sound On Sound in 2015. "But you could only switch between one or the other, it had to be either a VCF or a VCA, and then it had various waveforms for the LFO. Whatever you put through it at line level, it would modulate the sound to the speed of the LFO. You could overdrive it quite easily, so it had that sort of fizzy distortion sound along with this modulation."

Every member had at least one Gristleizer at hand, with Genesis and Carter both using two. "The beauty of the Gristleizers was that its range of sounds was so extreme, which also meant it could sound completely different depending on the instrument," Carter explained to Planet Origo in 2004.

"The sounds included slow modulated filtering, a metallic ring-modulation effect, clipped and fuzzed distortion, and tremolo. At the time, there was no other battery-powered effect unit capable of such a wide and weird range of sounds." The Gristleizer was later made into a Eurorack module by Future Sound Systems working with Chris Carter and Roy Gwinn.

Eventide Harmonizers—particularly the HM80—were also a core part of the TG sound. Each member had an effects chain that started with a Gristleizer and then passed through a Harmonizer. This would then be fed into a tape echo, likely a Roland RE-201 (the band had two), a Watkins Copicat, and later a Roland Chorus Echo SRE-555. TG were also known to use more typical stompbox effects as well, like various fuzzes, a flanger (such as the Boss BF-2), phase, wah-wah, and chorus (particularly the Boss CE-2).

Exotic Functions: Synths, Drum Machines, and The Proto-Sampler

The core of the electronic sound of TG was made with a hybrid Roland System 100m rig. Carter worked with a combination of Roland modules and Digisound kits that he modified and painted to fit into the Roland racks. The system expanded throughout TG’s first period (as modular systems tend to do!), but his main system was comprised of 191-J and 190 racks, a 112 dual VCO, 110 VCO/VCF/VCA combo unit, a 140 dual envelope and LFO unit, and a 182 sequencer.

AB/7A (Remastered)

Later he added another 182, a 172 phase/delay, a 121 dual VCF, a 130 VCA, and 131 mixer. To this he added a dozen or so Digisound modules, which included VCAs, VCFs, envelope generators, envelope followers, and ring modulators.

Carter was a Roland fan, and his rig also included a Roland SH-3A, SH-1, SH-5, SH-7, and SH-2. The SH-3A can be heard on "AB/7A" on D.o.A.: the Third and Final Report, sequenced by a Roland Model 104—the analog sequencer from the System 100 (which was apparently Carter’s only piece of gear from the famous system).

Now, about that tape machine. While it’s true that professional samplers did exist in the late ‘70s (the Fairlight CMI was released in 1979), true to form, TG built their own (although in a decidedly analog and low-tech way).

Where Genesis sang and played bass, Cosey handled guitar and trumpet duties, and Chris was the mad synthesist, Sleazy preferred to work with tape. He returned from a trip to New York with four new Sony Walkmans, and with these, he and Carter created a kind of proto-sampler.

"We sat down and figured out a way that we could trigger the tapes from a keyboard," Carter explained in the same interview with Sound On Sound. "I had a small one-octave keyboard, and I put relays on it, so by playing the keyboard he could switch them on and off with his fingers." Sleazy used this to trigger secretly recorded conversations, bits of audio from TV and radio, and tape loops made by Carter on his modular rig.

United: Mixers, Mics, and Tape Decks

Less exciting but no less important to the sound of TG was the gear behind the gear: the mixers, microphones, and tape decks used to record the albums.

As befitting a group that was more concerned with sonic exploration than pristine sound, they used a slapdash mixer system that evolved over the years and included a Soundcraft, Tascam, Boss KM-4, and two Seck mixers chained together. For microphones, Genesis preferred Shure SM58s, likely for their durability. They used these on their amps as well.

TG operated out of their own studio, which they called The Death Factory. They didn’t own their own tape deck and would rent them as needed. Because Sleazy was on the staff at Hipgnosis, the design company famous for working with Pink Floyd, the band often rented Studer 2-inch 16-track tape machines from Floyd’s Britannia Row studio. From wreckers of civilization to associates of Pink Floyd.

Throbbing Gristle broke up in 1981, and Genesis and Sleazy soon formed Psychic TV, with Sleazy later forming Coil with John Balance. Chris and Cosey continued on making music as well. The four reunited in 2004, releasing new music and touring. Sleazy passed away in 2010, ending the band, and Genesis passed away in 2020.

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