Forward to Electronic Music Pioneers

Diary of a Teenage Synth Hacker

Electronic sound has a broad past and even more diverse present, having infiltrated nearly every genre of music over the last decades. Most literature on the topic, however, is somewhat partisan. As can happen all too often in artistic spheres, tastes can win out over history, and various writings can have a particular slant, covering certain bodies of work and quickly skipping or ignoring others. When Ben Kettlewell sent me a draft copy of his text for Electronic Music Pioneers, however, I was delighted to see that this one was an exception to this rule, covering essentially all of the bases. It's rare to see a complete survey of the early instruments together with an introduction to what was happening in academic research and composition that also discusses the Berlin musicians of the 1970's and the impact of the synthesizer on more popular genres. Due to its reliance on cutting-edge engineering, electronic music also has another axis that further complicates things: artists vs. technologists. I was likewise happy to see that Ben addresses this as well, covering both aspects - of the designers of these often intricate and complicated machines and the now-legendary musicians who eagerly learned how to use these confusing and temperamental devices to push the boundaries of music.

Thinking back to the time when I first met Ben about a decade ago, this is hardly surprising. It was a beautiful summer evening, and I was walking down Commercial Street in Provincetown Massachusetts with my wife during a weekend on Cape Cod. We noticed his shop Elements, the front dominated by interesting and appealing pieces of glass, sculpture, and jewelry, not entirely out of place in the whimsical atmosphere there. We couldn't resist wandering in. In the rear of the shop, there were CD's and tapes for sale. Expecting the usual new-age collection, I sauntered over. Needless to say, I was completely wrong; Ben had amassed an amazing genre-crossing collection of avant-guarde and electronic music culled from his years as presenter of his radio show, 'Imaginary Voyage', for the local radio station. Although there are now a multitude of independent and electronic music retailers on the internet, back then, in the early 90's, this music was nearly impossible to find, usually carried by a small set of mail-order retailers who relied namely on word-of-mouth for advertisement (hence the word "obscure" was always attached to such music). Being an avid collector, I bought a bunch of discs, which launched a great conversation with Ben that was continued on my many subsequent visits. Although we'd never previously met, the electronic music scene was quite small in Boston then, and we knew several people in common; from my end as a synthesizer builder and from Ben's as a musician and radio presenter. It was a time of change for both of us though; within a couple of years, I was to join the MIT Media Lab to collaborate with Tod Machover on hyperinstruments and later start my own research group focusing on new interfaces for computer-human interaction and electronic music, while Ben left Provincetown to pursue music. Good music shops never lasted too long in those days, especially in the general Boston area.

As I read through the draft of Electronic Music Pioneers, I remembered what it was like to grow up in and around Boston across the cusp of the 60's and 70's as a technically-inclined kid with a passion for new sounds. Much as today's youth is encountering the revolution of media convergence and social computing brought by cheap PC's and widespread internet penetration, our generation saw the rise of consumer electronics, as transistors and integrated circuits redefined radio, television, hi-fi, and musical instruments. As long as I can remember, I'd had an interest in electronic audio, perhaps because my dad had an ancient Revere open-reel, monaural, tube-driven tape recorder, which offered endless fascination in my toddler days (it was great sport to play with the transport when he wasn't looking and snarl the reels). When I was old enough to get my own library card, these interests expanded upon checking out those wonderfully strange electronic music LP's on the Folkways label, which somehow had infiltrated their collection. I promptly took possession of my dad's old Revere, and had a great time exploring the sonic possibilities when it was operated outside of its normal bounds. It survived (barely) and is still somewhere in a corner of the attic.

Perhaps the coup de grace was given by my uncle Jake, the subversive relative who first turned my on to rock music by giving me his old 45's (over vehement protests by my parents). I guess this kind of thing repeats with each generation; every kid needs an uncle Jake in the family. In 1968, Jake gave me a copy of Switched on Bach (he was always pretty hip). Life was never the same again. The sounds were fascinating, but after the Folkways records, that wasn't too unusual. The image of the Moog modular on the cover is what did it. All those knobs and phone jacks sprouting from an ominous black cabinet out of a telephone operator's nightmare, with the musical keyboard totally out of place below... and that guy standing beside it in 18'th century garb; could that be Wendy Carlos dressed up like Bach? In those days of Paul Revere and the Raiders, that wouldn't be entirely out of the norm. The liner notes were fascinating, but after having read them a dozen times (and squinted at the blurry labels on the modules in attempts to decipher them), I had little idea of what this device actually was. But one thing was for sure... I had to have one someday.

Synthesizer records would become more common over the next few years. But while most were of little consequence (e.g., everything you'd never want to hear anyway, but played on the Moog), some were groundbreaking. And the amazing thing is that, because they were so novel, they were often widely available. The best examples that I remember were Morton Subotnick's Nonesuch releases. Nonesuch was a budget classical label. I used to see them in common department stores. I'd browse through the stacks while my parents were shopping, and Mort's records would jump right out, with their colorful 60's Peter-Max-ish covers and those muddy photos of Mort in front of the Buchla modulars, like a madcap pilot held prisoner in a macabre cockpit. And at around $2. a pop, I could even afford them on my allowance!

My high-school and early college years were the golden era of progressive rock. My friends and I flocked to some awesome, ground-breaking concerts then; it was indeed a privilege to see Pink Floyd pre-Dark-Side with speakers scattered all over the theater, King Crimson with their temperamental mellotrons, ELP with that massive Moog modular, and eventually Tangerine Dream with a stage full of blinking lights and sound-producing silicon. Fusion jazz was just beginning then; it didn't even have a name yet, and was far from settling down into a middle-of-the-road boor. In Boston, the Jazz Workshop, a small, intimate club in a basement beneath Copley Square, was the only place to see these groundbreaking fusion bands perform. While most groups sported a tiny ARP Oddessy or MiniMoog, the most memorable event was seeing Herbie Hancock's Crossings-era band with Pat Gleeson playing a full-up E-Mu modular. This is the period that essentially clinched it for me; I needed one of these things.

Buying a synthesizer was out of the question. MinMoogs cost well over a thousand dollars, and modular systems ran at least ten times that amount. Aside from the poor economics dictated by the limited market for modulars, the sheer amount of labor involved in wiring up all of the panels and circuitry was formidable. I had no choice but to build one. I was hardly alone in that aspiration. Dave Rossum, co-founder of E-Mu and their main synthesizer architect over most of their products, recently told me that music synthesizers had supplanted ham radios in those days as lightning rods to absorb the lives of technically-inclined tinkerers. I have a feeling that he was on the mark; many of us got our electronics chops that way.

There wasn't much literature on the innards of synthesizers back then. Manufacturers tended to protect their secrets, as the competition was fierce. Don Simonton's low-budget PAIA kits were the exception, however, as he published the circuitry across several issues of Radio and Electronics. Likewise, Don Lancaster (author of the famous TTL and CMOS cookbooks) published some great articles in the popular electronic press about very interesting ways to use common IC's in musical contexts, and Walt Jung's Op-Amp Cookbook was a bible full of synthesizer-relevant circuitry. Barry Klein's tome, "Electronic Music Circuits", was a gold mine of information, but wasn't to be released for several years, and the various "Electronotes" issues were fantastic, but nearly impossible to get ahold of back then.

I started my first modular in a room in my parent's basement when I was a freshman in college, back in 1974. The room was painted totally black. It had served as a canonical psychedelic dungeon and hangout in my high-school days (a few of the flashing lights and 6' x 8' color organs still worked), and functioned part-time as a darkroom (setting the ambient odor), as I was also an avid photographer. I built the wooden synth cabinet in the center of the room. It measured 3' x 3', and had four rows waiting for modules. As I had only a vague idea of what to put in there, I wrote to every synthesizer manufacture I knew of for brochures to try and figure out what went into these things. I also called every university around to see if I could visit their electronic music studio (we had nothing of the sort at Tufts then). Phoning MIT led me to my present colleague at the Media Lab, Barry Vercoe, who informed me that "MIT only does digital synthesis". I hit the gold mine though when phoning Harvard, where I got connected to Serge Tcherepnin's brother Ivan, who ran their electronic music program and invited me over to see their facility. This was another life-changing experience. Ivan took me right past the rows of hulking, dark Buchlas in their attic studio, and over to a small Serge that he had in the center of the room. He went through his brother's masterpiece module-by-module in the hour that ensued, and I soaked the experience up like a sponge. The Serge's revolutionary concepts, such as the interchangeability of control and audio signals, cast long shadows onto my evolving plans.

My original modules started out with ideas from the Simonton and Lancaster articles. The oscillators weren't very stable and the filters were somewhat dull, but I was able to amuse my friends and annoy my family by crosspatching them to make chaotic soundscapes that I'd let go on for hours at significant volume. I had little money at the time, and had to really scrounge for parts. The potentiometers (i.e., knobs) came from old TV monitors that were being thrown away at a Rt. 128 company that made computer terminals, where I worked during high school. I had a part-time job during college writing software at Draper Laboratory, an MIT spin-off famous for designing guidance systems for missiles and spacecraft. I befriended the technicians and engineers there, who gave me old panels full of pin jacks (the patch cord standard that I adopted from the PAIA designs), provided me with resistors and capacitors, and let me sneak into their printed-circuit facility to make my boards. It was a great gig, indeed. I bought my semiconductors at "Eli Hefron's", a surplus electronics store in Cambridge full of the electronic effluent cast out of the Rt. 128 and Cambridge establishments (it was rumored that some of the junk on Eli's floor could compromise America's best military secrets if it fell into the wrong hands). The guys there got to know me pretty well; it wasn't too unusual to be building a synthesizer then, but I was their most fanatic such customer, and they gave me good discounts.

As my quest for components grew more and more esoteric, I wandered one day into a little-known surplus electronics store in a warehouse in downtown Salem, Massachusetts. Although I didn't expect to find such an enterprise there, it turned out that these guys had just started a side-business producing the Aries synthesizer kits, comprising modules of much higher quality than the PAIA units. I had a great, high-bandwidth conversation with one of the managers, who thought for some reason that I had enough money to buy his products. In the half-hour that we chatted, I came away with some important gems, e.g., go with exponential oscillators rather than the linear scheme sported by the PAIA system, and check out Dennis Colin's article in the Journal of the Audio Engineering Society to find out how to build a great voltage-controlled filter. He also pulled out a schematic in the course of our conversation, but I noticed that the critical, temperature-compensated exponentiator circuitry covered by a black hunk of thermal epoxy on the circuit board was also blacked out on the schematic. Such was the state of this competitive field back then; when I asked about the hidden circuitry, our chat came to a quick close. Regardless, the stability and controllability of my home-made system benefited greatly from this exchange.

I gradually filled the wooden cabinet up with 37 modules after many dedicated evenings and weekends and countless solder burns and minor injuries from totally improper machining practices. Although I had ideas left for many other modules, I ran out of both space in the cabinet and hours to build more. From 1977 to 1982 my synthesizer-building activities took a hiatus, as there was little time free during my graduate physics studies for such leisure. The main exception was a dual-oscillator module that I built to play around with computer-controlled synthesis during a break in my Ph.D. research. This clandestinely fit into an instrument crate that we used for our experiment at the CERN physics laboratory in Geneva, surprising many of my colleagues as it spontaneously erupted into cacophony once an hour (my thesis advisor, in his heavy German accent, termed it "old crow").

Things changed at the end of 1982. I was a postdoc at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich at the time; I'd been there for about a year, and due to a relentless schedule of toil, I was significantly ahead in my work. Zurich, at the time, was a fascinating place, full of stimulation and conflict. The music scene was fantastic; there was an active branch of Recommended Records (later to become RecRec) in town, and I saw countless wonderful concerts from alternative musicians who would never make it to the USA. These ranged from the avant-guarde "Rock In Opposition" bands like Sweden's Von Zamla and Belgium's Univers Zero through electronic artists like Klaus Schulze. Likewise, the youth of the city were erupting in protest against the establishment "opera crowd", and it wasn't uncommon to inhale a bit of tear gas together with the clear Alpine air. But it was a city very difficult to participate in, especially as a foreign, workaholic physicist. Thus it was a dangerous mix: I had access to a fantastic electronics lab, time on my hands, lots of musical stimulation, and countless ideas churning on new synthesizer modules to build.

It started with a fairly simple scheme; I purchased one of those cheap Casio "VL-Tone" toy keyboards that had just come onto the market; this was probably the first "throw-away" digital keyboard. After spending a night probing the circuitry, I found several interesting "hidden" points where strange and delightfully ugly intermediate sounds were produced. This led to my first "Frankenstein" construction, where I replaced the toy keyboard of the Casio with a full-sized organ manual, and brought all of the internal patch points that I'd discovered out to a pin jack panel, so I could process them further with my modular gear. Others in this tradition followed (over the next years, the modular system assimilated a Casio CS-101, a Casio SK-1, a Minimoog, a Moog Satellite, and the Radio Shack/Moog MG-1).

I then started making more modules. Many integrated circuits had been recently released that had great musical potential (for instance, a phoneme synthesizer for computer-generated speech that I'd heard babbling away in a gas system designed by some of my German physics colleagues). In the package of a module, which would take me at most a few evenings to fabricate, I'd be able to embed such chips and immediately start experimenting and making sounds with them. Granted, at the time, one could consider building a computer-based system (the DX-7 had just been released, and essentially all analog synthesizers at the time were being controlled by microprocessors), but this was a complicated endeavor doomed to fast obsolescence and wouldn't make a sound until everything was completed. On the other hand, I could turn my modules out quickly, and immediately start using them to explore sonic ideas. And these ideas kept coming.... During this period of my life, the passion of building synthesizers turned into an obsession. By the time I left Zurich at the end of 1983, I'd constructed an armada of about 80 modules, most of which were unusual devices not found in common modulars. I packed them up into boxes labeled "domestic equipment", and somehow they slipped through US customs and arrived here unscathed and uninspected. After settling back in the Boston area, I found a bookshelf maker in Cambridge who I contracted to build the enclosures, then essentially finished the system. Together with the modules that I'd built previously (which I'd since refurbished), the world's largest homemade synthesizer now dominated my living room.

Although I've designed and built many electronic music devices and interfaces since, some of which have attracted a bit of notoriety, my modular system is happily completed, and the demons that drove me to build the thing have found other fertile fields in which to plant their suggestions (although I still have wild dreams about the appropriate MIDI interface). As I type now in my basement many years later, the modular surrounds me, with its myriad knobs, switches, buttons, LED's and patch jacks; a sleeping giant waiting to be coaxed into life with a flip of the power switches. It's a very special, fragile, and intimate interface indeed. With all of those degrees of tangible freedom to create and sculpt sound, one rapidly creates unique timbres, easily nudged about with a tweak on any of dozens of possible controls immediately at your fingertips. And every sound you make with it is a unique event; once those patches get pulled, it never comes back the same way twice. And it makes such dirty, gritty, grungy sounds indeed... the beauty of analog!

My main use for it now is to make gigantic sound installations with huge patches that I continue building over several hours, until I run out of patch cords. The process is perhaps closer to sculpture than music, where one starts with a small "seed" patch, and continues augmenting it until it becomes a monster (perhaps a close analogy to the process of building the synthesizer itself). These are mainly autonomous, babbling and droning on for hours and days, never repeating, until it's turned off (see for representative audio clips). I periodically am tempted to make a MIDI interface for it, but perhaps this beast is best left to roam out on its own, not lashed down by a demanding stream of MIDI commands.

I often wonder what drove me to make such a titan, and particular answers are elusive. I guess it comes down to being a technical kid growing up in the golden era of the great modulars and witnessing the dawn and synergy of progressive, psychedelic, electronic, and avant-guard music. I've tried to give somewhat of a feeling for what it was like in this text, and Ben expands on it greatly in the chapters that follow. Things were probably quite different for kids growing up in the 90's though; these were difficult days for home-built electronic music, since cutting-edge synthesizer technology was then embodied in specialized integrated circuits that were essentially impossible to work with without corporate resources.

It's a changed world now. Standard personal computers have enough processing power to begin allowing the functions of real-time music synthesizers to be assimilated into software programs and plug-ins. This will only improve as computers follow Moore's Law, packing exponentially more processing power into a desktop footprint. The synthesizer as an external piece of dedicated hardware is an endangered species; it will quickly become a set of rules and algorithms followed by a computer program. This process, started by Max Matthews at Bell Laboratories four decades ago, is blending diverse populations such as academic composers and techno musicians; both are now using the same sets of tools. By running algorithms based on physically-derived models, software synthesis is shedding its static, pristine clarity and acquiring the expressiveness of acoustic instruments or the grunge of the early analog synths. Together with the music distribution process likewise being thrown into disarray with the widespread trading of MP3 files over the Internet, mediated through search programs like Napster and Gnutella, we are living in revolutionary times, where the paradigms behind composing, playing, producing, distributing, and interacting with music are all being redefined and wonderfully democratized. Now, it's not academics at large institutions, engineers at musical instrument companies, big-name musicians, or record company execs who will build and define it, but instead talented folks in front of their personal computers - perhaps kids growing up in the post-convergence age, with open ears, lots of ideas, a dose of dedication and commitment, and time to follow their dreams. Although they may suffer from RSI (at least until we stop typing at our computers), this generation can avoid the burns from the soldering iron and cuts from the machine shop. And in whatever form it takes, I can't wait to download the music.

Joe Paradiso, 2-July-00