A HISTORY OF ELECTRONIC MUSIC PIONEERS
by David Dunn
In reality the analog voltage-controlled synthesizer is a collection of waveform and noise generators, modifiers (such as filters, ring modulators, amplifiers), mixers and control devices packaged in modular or integrated form. The generators produce an electronic signal which can be patched through the modifiers and into a mixer or amplifier where it is made audible through loudspeakers. This sequence of interconnections constitutes a signal path which is determined by means of patch cords, switches, or matrix pinboards. Changes in the behaviors of the devices (such as pitch or loudness) along the signal path are controlled from other devices which produce control voltages. These control voltage sources can be a keyboard, a ribbon controller, a random voltage source, an envelope generator or any other compatible voltage source. p.37-38
In contrast to Moog's industrial stance, the rather counter-cultural design philosophy of DONALD BUCHLA and his voltage-controlled synthesizers can partially be attributed to the geographic locale and cultural circumstances of their genesis. In 1961 San Francisco was beginning to emerge as a major cultural center with several vanguard composers organizing concerts and other performance events. MORTON SUBOTNICK was starting his career in electronic music experimentation, as were PAULINE OLIVEROS, RAMON SENDER and TERRY RILEY. A primitive studio had been started at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music by Sender where he and Oliveros had begun a series of experimental music concerts. In 1962 this equipment and other resources from electronic surplus sources were pooled together by Sender and Subotnick to form the San Francisco Tape Music Center which was later moved to Mills College in 1966.
Because of the severe limitations of the equipment, Subotnick and Sender sought out the help of a competent engineer in 1962 to realize a design they had concocted for an optically based sound generating instrument. After a few failures at hiring an engineer they met DONALD BUCHLA who realized their design but subsequently convinced them that this was the wrong approach for solving their equipment needs. Their subsequent discussions resulted in the concept of a modular system. Subotnick describes their idea in the following terms:
"Our idea was to build the black box that would be a palette for composers in their homes. It would be their studio. The idea was to design it so that it was like an analog computer. It was not a musical instrument but it was modular...It was a collection of modules of voltage-controlled envelope generators and it had sequencers in it right off the bat...It was a collection of modules that you would put together. There were no two systems the same until CBS bought it...Our goal was that it should be under $400 for the entire instrument and we came every close. That's why the original instrument I fundraised for was under $500."
Buchla's design approach differed markedly from Moog. Right from the start Buchla rejected the idea of a "synthesizer" and has resisted the word ever since. He never wanted to "synthesize" familiar sounds but rather emphasized new timbral possibilities. He stressed the complexity that could arise out of randomness and was intrigued with the design of new control devices other than the standard keyboard. pp39-40
While the early Buchla instruments contained many of the same modular functions as the Moog, it also contained a number of unique devices such as its random control voltage sources, sequencers and voltage-controlled spatial panners. Buchla has maintained his unique design philosophy over the intervening years producing a series of highly advanced instruments often incorporating hybrid digital circuitry and unique control interfaces. p.41
One of the more interesting footnotes to this history of the analog synthesizer is the rather problematic relationship that many of the designers have had with commercialization and the subsequent solution of manufacturing problems. While the commercial potential for these instruments became evident very early on in the 1960's, the different aesthetic and design philosophies of the engineers demanded that they deal with this realization in different ways. Buchla, who early on got burnt by larger corporate interests, has dealt with the burden of marketing by essentially remaining a cottage industry, assembling and marketing his instruments from his home in Berkeley, California. p.42
DON BUCHLA Buchla 100 Series (Audio synthesizer), 1964[?jh]
WE HAD TWO ENCOUNTERS with Buchla's instruments before we met the man. The first incident took place at Subotnick's NYU music studio on Bleecker street, right above Rogosin's Bleeker Street Cinema. There was a clandestine operation in progress: Subotnick's students were selling their allotted time on the "Buchla" to the public. They even advertised in The Village Voice. We picked up Bob Mason's ad and moved some video gear in there one evening. There was a mysterious man living in the room behind the studio. We were introduced later. His name was Serge Tcherepnin.
We started experimenting right away and of course it worked. Those machines were eager to copulate. We modulated the picture by the raw voltages and generated some sounds from the video. Then we got a bit of good luck. A student by the name of Rhys Chatham was eager to experiment free of charge. The next year he was to become the first music director of The Kitchen.
There was also a Buchla instrument at the National Center for Experiments in Television in San Francisco. We made a few interesting patches from which two videotapes "Sound Prints" and "Spaces II" survive. Steve Beck arranged for us to meet Buchla at his factory. Don was quite shy and there were a lot of exotic people and exotic smoke in his loft. It was years before we became friends. Now we get a preview of all his new instruments, we even buy them and like them very much indeed. We even adopted his Toyota Landcruiser which he parks in our backyard for his annual trips to the Indian Country.__W.V.
DONALD BUCHLA WAS BORN "somewhere in California." Educated in physics, physiology, and music, his multi-faceted creativity has been applied to fields as diverse as space biophysics research, musical instrument design, and multi-media composition. Much of his work has involved the refinement and utilization of communications channels between man and machine, notably the invention of mobility aids for the visually handicapped, the development of instrumentation for biofeedback and physiological telemetry, and the design of high level music composition languages. His innovative concepts in studio design and the originality and versatility of his musical instruments have led to his international recognition as one of the most progressive inventors on the music circuit.
"I WOULD SAY that philosophically the prime difference in my approach from that of Robert Moog was that I separated sound and structure and he didn't. Control voltages were interchangeable with audio. The advantage of that is that he required only one kind of connector and that modules could serve more than one purpose. There were several drawbacks to that kind of general approach, one of them being that a module designed to work in the structural domain at the same time as the audio domain has to make compromises. DC offset doesn't make any difference in the sound domain but it makes a big difference in the structural domain, whereas harmonic distortion makes very little difference in the control area but it can be very significant in the audio areas.
You also have a matter of just being able to discern what's happening in a system by looking at it. If you have a very complex patch, it's nice to be able to tell what aspect of the patch is the structural part of the music versus what is the signal path and so on. There's a big difference in whether you deal with linear versus exponential functions at the control level and that was a very inhibiting factor in Moog's general approach.
Uncertainty is the basis for a lot of my work. One always operates somewhere between the totally predictable and the totally unpredictable and to me, "source of uncertainty"as we called it, was a way of aiding the composer. The predictabilities could be highly defined or you could have a sequence of totally random numbers. We had voltage control of the randomness and of the rate of change. In this way you could make patterns that were of more interest than patterns that are totally random."__D.B. p.96