Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Dreams Come Through Wires: The Utopianism of the Modular Synthesizer Revival

The History of Two
Who would argue that in these dark days a dose of utopianism wouldn't go amiss? True it is that the political scene at home and internationally hardly encourages any optimism, but perhaps in these 'times that try men's souls' we might do better when looking for a glimmer of another world to restrict our gaze to those things nearer to hand, in the more obscure niches and preoccupations of life in developed societies. The rarefied world of modular synthesizers may not seem for many a likely place to feel the stirrings of such utopian longing. These antiquated looking objects festooned with knobs and dials, sprouting cables in rainbow shades could be props from a Soviet-era science fiction film, or take pride of place at the heart of an early nuclear power plant. For the uninitiated the era of huge banks of analogue equipment emitting otherworldly bleeps and bloops is forever associated with lab based boffins with a university stipend or the excesses of moneyed progsters like Keith Emerson. Moreover, didn’t it all end more or less before it began with the advent of digital technology, the printed microchip, home computers and software emulations? But you'd be wrong in thinking this. Analogue music technology more generally has slowly been making a comeback since the turn of the millennium and like vinyl never really went away, being beloved by that crowd who hail its signature warmth and thickness.   

However, it isn't merely the hippsterish fetish for a more "authentic" sound that is driving the revival. Today's synthesists are coming from a variety of backgrounds, from avant-garde composition, to modern techno and utilising the technology in ways that were never previously explored. In doing so they're reviving something of a utopian spirit, one that longed not just for new sounds and new ways of making music, but saw in itself a correlate to the massive social upheavals taking place in the 1960s and 70s. 

Modular synthesizers differ from other types of classic analogue synths such as the Arp Odyssey, Korg MS-20 or MiniMoog in that they have an open architecture that allows a custom configuration of different parts or modules to the owners specification. Unlike the instruments listed above modular synths lack a normalised signal path and so the audio and voltage signals need to be patched across the system using cables, thus lending them their characteristic Heath Robinson-like appearance. This of course allows the user to utilise as many or as few parts of their system as they would like. Also, modular synthesizers don't normally have a built in keyboard although they can be integrated with one. Before more portable commercially sold equipment utilising keys was developed all synthesisers were constructed in this way, the most famous being those build by Robert Moog. Moog was also highly successful in producing smaller cheaper instruments that utilised the same technology but in a scaled down more performance friendly package. The MiniMoog (1970) was portable, stable, had a normalised signal path and crucially a built in keyboard. It became the most recognisable and iconic synthesizer ever made. 

At the same time that Moog was developing his modular systems in the early 1960s, on the other side of the United States Don Buchla had just been hired by the San Francisco Tape Music Center to help them build a new kind of electronic instrument. Buchla, who sadly passed away last year, was both an engineer and a musician and arrived at the center via NASA where he had worked on developing technology designed to withstand cosmic radiation. He was also associated with the Grateful Dead whose own brand of cosmic happenings he lent his engineering skills to in collaboration with Owsley Stanley, who alongside audio engineering was the first person to synthesise mass qualities of LSD. In a not entirely unconnected way Buchla was involved with the Trips festival and was rumoured to sit beneath the stage playing one of his early machines during the Grateful Dead's sets. He was familiar to the avant-garde community around San Francisco and had produced his own series of wigged out tape music compositions. This unique combination of hippy outlook and cutting edge engineering prowess fit well with the counter-cultural mood of the time as well as the aspirations of his colleagues in San Francisco who included noted composer Morton Subotnick. In 2016 Subotnick recalled his instructions to Buchla: "I didn’t want a keyboard ... I didn’t want to reproduce the old way to make music, which was pitch-based orientation. I wanted it to be gesturally-based. I said, ‘This is not a musical instrument. This is, at best, an instrument to make instruments. It’s to paint.’

The metaphor of painting would stick. After producing a series of large, uniquely designed and versatile modular systems during the 60s, in 1973 Buchla produced the Music Easel, a compact modular system utilising the touch sensitive plates he had developed instead of a keyboard. These plates could be calibrated to a traditional chromatic scale or they could be patched in to trigger different parts of the instrument or modify the sequencing function.  In 2013 on the back of a revival of interest in Buchla's instruments, production resumed on the Music Easel with demonstration films on YouTube describing the instrument's sliders as "brushes". 

The differences between these two key designers of modular synthesizers as well as the wider social environment in which they worked are key to our story here. While Moog's instruments appealed to more keyboard-centric musicians looking to add new timbres to traditional forms of composing (exemplified in Wendy Carlos' Switch on Bach) Buchla's instruments were designed with the musician's interface as the starting point for producing a unique performance based experience of composing that incorporated a very 1960s emphasis on play. This was similarly reflected in the type of modules produced by Buchla, many of which had less than intuitive functionality and somewhat whimsical names. Take for example the module simply called Source of Uncertainty. While Moog's original machines were principally studio tools, never intended to be used by themselves, Buchla's instruments were aimed towards live performance and included several innovative methods for programming repetitive elements and sequencing them into rudimentary compositions. And whereas Moog's later compact instruments reflected an economy of ergonomics and intuitive practical interface, Buchla's Music Easel and other smaller systems retained their unique design and somewhat mystical performance aesthetic.  

Buchla's Arbitrary Function Generator
These differences in design and performance possibilities were similarly reflected in the different synthesis techniques each employed and thus the kinds of sounds these instruments could produce. Putting it briefly, Moog's instruments functioned through what is termed subtractive synthesis, which involves a waveform produced by an oscillator (sometimes several) being passed through a low pass resonant filter which removes part of the harmonic content of the signal. Sweeping the filter resonance produces rich shifts in timbre. The resultant signal is then modified by a voltage controlled amplifier (VCF or ADSR) which further shapes the sound and can also be used to modify the way the filter affects the waveform. Owing to Moog being based in New York this type of synthesis has come to be termed East Coast. Since Buchla and his team were then based in California their synthesis technique has of course come to be known as West Coast. A far less bloodstained alternative to the famous hip-hop rivalry but one which fosters no less a degree of loyalty. West Coast synthesis utilises several alternatives to subtractive synthesis, one of the most common being waveshaping which rather than filtering out harmonic content shapes the signal according to mathematical functions. Buchla also developed combinations of VCF's and sequencing functions that allowed his instrument to produce a wide range of naturalistic percussive and organic sounding textures. Morton Subotnick's records Silver Apples of the Moon and Wild Bull are classic demonstrations of the new possibilities inherent in Buchla's systems.

The Revival of Many
In the end however the hardnosed commercial environment of 1970s New York, coupled with Robert Moog's emphasis on more expedient, flexibly employed and reliable machines led to his brand becoming the most successful and iconic of the early synthesiser manufacturers. Although Moog's instruments could never be described as cheap, Buchla's machines and especially his larger modular systems suffered from being produced on a far smaller scale and carried price tags within the range of few individuals. Even the smaller Music Easel was produced on a tiny scale and commanded prices two or three times the cost of a MiniMoog. More-often Buchla's machines were purchased by institutions or added to the collections of wealthy enthusiasts. Don Buchla's counter-cultural and open form of electronic music would for time being remain a niche obsession. 

Doepfer A-100 complete system
That is until the last decade or so, when an explosion of interest in analogue synthesisers has forced manufacturers back to their soldering irons. In the last three years alone recreations of classic instruments like the Korg MS-20 and Arp Odyssey have come onto the market as well as manufacturers like Dave Smith, Roland and Oberheim expanding their analogue range. But it's been in the area of modular synthesisers that the most surprising developments have occurred. What was once the preserve of moneyed enthusiasts and adventurous music colleges has been reborn as a 'craft' industry with dozens of boutique manufacturers producing modules with a bewildering array of functions. One of the principle enabling factors has been the development of the Eurorack format which created a standardised size and voltage requirement for modules. German manufacturer Doepfer became a leader in the revived market producing a wide range of simple, reliable but most of all affordable modules and complete systems, some which emulate iconic components from instruments of old. Doepfer's basic system includes twenty-three separate modules and retails at less than £2000.

The establishing of this basic industry standard has provided something of a level playing field for developers to experiment with new kinds of electronics. One of the effects of this has been to reunify the two schools of synthesis styles within the Eurorack format. Whereas a Buchla or Moog system would be more or less wholly based on either the West or East coast style (not to mention differing volt/octave standards) the open system of Eurorack allows users to combine modules from multiple manufactures, utilising different synthesis techniques to build playful hybrid systems with massive ranges in sounds and modulation possibilities. One company that has taken Buchla's zest for unconventional tactile interfaces onboard is Make Noise Co. who produce an array of beautifully designed devices. Many, like the sequencers Rene and Pressure Points incorporate tactile or other non-keyboard interfaces as well as being marked by mysterious almost hieroglyphic-like symbols. As well as building upon the techniques of the past an increasing number of manufacturers are producing synth modules that go beyond pure synthesis itself. Examples like Mutable Instruments Clouds, and Make Noise’s Phonogene integrate innovative external audio processing techniques to complement traditional oscillator based sound sources. There are even a few shortwave radio modules available that allow the introduction of ghostly static, half heard transmissions and other such audio artefacts into the signal path. On the design front the new wave of devices also shows a multitude of obsessions and styles, including replicating the vintage feel of older systems, tongue in cheek pastiches of clunky cold-war Soviet designs (see XAOC devices) and path finding experiments with user interfaces and panel art.

Three Modules: Make Noise Co Maths, XAOC Devices Moskwa, The Harvestman Hertz Donut
Along with this commercial diversification the modular revival has also produced its own online subculture. The amusingly monikered is at the heart of this international community where enthusiasts can pick up tips, trade equipment and synthesis secrets and generally socialise with other likeminded souls. YouTube hosts hundred of videos of modular synth tutorials, performances and a lot of people just showing off their latest toys; while channels like Sonicstate and Future Music Magazine regularly run features on modular synthesiser technology. A surprising number of these personal videos however feature players performing wild and complex techno work-outs on their systems. This is in striking contrast to the focus on timbre and abstraction that characterised modular synth music in previous decades and shows how the democratisation of the technology has resulted in a broadening of  interest among players of more urban or working class orientated music. The amount of video material available online points to another characteristic of the revival, which is that these systems are not just or even predominantly for making records. In fact the number of records utilising modular synthesisers is relatively small and always has been. Indeed ever since the technology was first available commercially there been a strange incongruence between the financial outlay associated with modular synthesisers and the amount of recorded music produced with them. People who bought them tended not to be studio musicians but electronics enthusiasts who delighted in their open architecture and sound making possibilities, not to mention how cool they made your living room look. In the past this kind of high priced hobbyism was the preserve of the few, but with the prices having come down and the boom in availability and online support the pleasure of cosmic electronic experimentation is possible for more people than ever. This renaissance has recently been recognised with the release of the documentary I Dream of Wires.

This is not to say that there are no records being produced using these instruments. In fact the last couple of years have perhaps finally seen the impact of the revival trickle down into new  recorded music. Alessandro Cortini is one of North America's most proficient Buchla players, as well as being a member of Nine Inch Nails and an all-round synth nut. His series of Buchla based records under his own name and his Sonoio moniker draw out the instrument's capability to produce a deep range of emotive organic textures and rhythms. Cortini has also contributed to Make Noise Records series exploring the range of their flagship Black and Gold modular system. Another Buchla enthusiast Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith mixes her modular systems with acoustic orchestration and innovative voice modulations, producing sparkling pop/avant-garde hybrids. In 2016 on FRKWYS Vol. 13: Sunergy, she teamed up with one of Buchla's most noted early students Suzanne Ciani for an expansive record of new-age and ambient meditations; the inter-generational aspect highlighting the rediscovery not just of the technology but of hitherto underappreciated artists like Ciani.

Elsewhere in the scene, Floating Points, Donnacha Costello and Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe each take modular synthesis in new directions. Floating Points into complex jazz and techno territory striving to integrate advances in modular synths with the latest studio technology, while Lowe has produced a body of deep freeform and exploratory meditations, touching both on spiritual themes and ephemeral percussive rhythms. These examples are not without significance as they include records produced by women and people of colour; groups who have traditionally found themselves excluded from the predominantly white and male dominated world of modular synthesisers and music technology more generally. Here at least the utopianism I'm getting at has an immediate and concrete appearance, despite there being a long way to go.

If there's one thing that each of these artists has in common and that perhaps characterises the modular synthesiser revival as a whole, it's a rejection of the conformity and homogeneity of much mainstream electronic music, while similarly shunning the academic roots of modular synth technology. Evidently nostalgia and a certain longing for the supposed authenticity and solidity of analogue equipment plays a part in all this. But if anything it's the hundreds of online videos and the new hybrid forms of music being produced that refutes this reduction of the revival to mere nostalgic re-appropriation and points towards something beyond. To put it more prosaically: if nostalgia is a longing for the past or a return to the origin, then a progressive form can only be thought through a radicalising of that origin for the purpose of going beyond a deadlock in the present. For me this obscure corner of music culture points to a longing for a freer, more open and engaged type of artistic creation beyond the stifling conformity and throwaway quality of music under Last-Days-Capitalism; one that is both available to the widest number of participants and which captures something of the hopes and expectations of the counter-culture of the 1960s and 70s. A world, in short, very different from the one we are currently living through. None-the-less such distractions, such mico-utopias are the morsels that must sustain us through the long night of the present.

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