Object of desire #01. A new feature we’ll be running on the Fluid Blog, Objects of Desire, object which for whatever reason we have fallen in love with. And I’m starting the ball rolling with the Buchla 2000e Modular Synthesiser -
If you buy a contemporary off the shelf Synthesiser today it will be a keyboard shaped with a few knobs and a button which you can select from 100′s (in some cases 1000′s) of preset sounds all of which are fairly “musical” for want of another word, with a few wacky sound effects thrown in for effect. The internal layout of your instrument will be fixed to oscillator (creates the sound) to envelope (shapes the sound) to filter (alters the timbre of the sound) and then to output.
And so once you’ve plugged it into the mains and the output into your amp.. and then even with the most rudimentary keyboard skills your ready to go, with no prior knowledge of electronic music, you’ll be able to flip rapidly between sounds – you’ll never go out of tune and you’ll impress everyone..
This wasn’t always the case in the early years, the first commercially available Synthesiser’s were modulars – that is each was split in various modules which controlled / manipulated / or generated the sound, if you plugged this into the mains nothing would happen (apart from the mains light going on). You would have to physically plug one unit into another via patch cable’s and adjusting the numerous dias and knobs on each of the modules to create a sound, this not only required an understanding of the principals of electronic music but a great amount of time it can take hours (if not days) of work to create the one sound.. Then to create another sound all the cables would have to be pulled out and the whole process would have to start again..
With the advent of digital technology it was widely assumed that they redundant technology. But the big advantage was that Modulars had was the synth could be patched together in widely unconventional ways based on the whim of the user and create unconventional “non musical” sounds and slight adjustments on any of the parameters can cause radical or subtle changes in the sound – this war on the tyranny of the preset is why we are seeing a massive resurgent of interest in Modular synth’s fuelled by a cottage industry of small independent designers working closely with musicians to produce custom units..
Modular synths were developed independently in the 1960′s by a number of people, Bob Moog being the most well know – less know was the Californian designer Don Buchla – Whist the majority attached keyboards onto there machines Buchla was much more of a maverick he wanted his instruments to be seen as a totally new way of not only creating music but of thinking about music – The problem with putting a keyboard on a Synthesiser is you immediately think of it as well…. a keyboard instrument, with all it entails, conventional european scales / chord / melody and rhythm (cue endless 1970′s prog rock synth solo’s!)..
Buchla synths were controlled in a number of ways the most famous being touch sensitive pads which by pressing down could control one variable, moving your finger forward and back controlled another and side to side another. With multiple pad’s the musician could control a vast number of variables rapidly and with great sensitivity. Coupled with this Buchla synths had a number of modules which created random functions which changed the sound in unexpected ways. I’ve spoken to one musician after a devastating live performance who said he’s only ever 75% in control of his Buchla and 25% is unexpected, so it them becomes like an improvisational dance with his synth rather than a conventional performance..
Although I’m never in favour of “punching a nail in with my fist rather than use a hammer” there is a downside to ease of use – and often the design of the physical and digital tools we use, coupled with the need for creating something quickly to fit into deadlines – can often railroad us into creating and thinking about art in conventional and staid ways.. rather that the necessity we have to do as creative artists of redesigning the wheel once in a while .
One of the first piece created with the Buchla was “Silver Apples of the Moon” by Morton Subotnick in 1968. Here’s some footage of him recently demonstrating the operation of the Buchla – you can see him using the touch pad unit
For all it unconventionality / natty utilitarian brushed metal panels, coloured knobs, flashing lights and wire’s, right out of a mad scientists lair.. and of course sounding totally and utterly fantastic – The Buchla 200e synth in my object of desire..