Remembering Synthesizer Innovator Don Buchla (1937-2016)

Donald Buchla, co-inventor of the voltage-controlled transistorized modular synthesizer passed away on September 14, 2016. It wasn’t just a sad day; it was the end of an era. As we did in 2005 when Bob Moog died, we must let go of one of the innovators who created and shaped the synthesizer industry, synthesizer culture, and the music of today.

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At the Bob Moog Foundation, our primary purpose is to promote the incredible legacy of synthesizer inventor Bob Moog. But when Bob Moog was asked about “having invented the synthesizer,” he was quick to point out that he “stood on the shoulders of giants.” This is to say that Bob, in his shockingly humble and good-natured way, recognized that the history of the synthesizer is a giant example of synthesis; it came about because of the imagination, innovation, and production of many people.

Bob’s appreciation wasn’t limited to those who came before him; he also recognized the genius of his contemporaries. While at times some people suggest that there is, or was, competition between Bob Moog and Don Buchla, there wasn’t and isn’t. The two men worked separately and without knowledge of each other during the early 1960s on similar voltage-controlled modular synthesizers. Theirs is a story of two engineers who were individually approached by contemporary composers and inspired to create something new, something innovative, and something that would change the world. Later on, Bob Moog and Don Buchla knew each other, respected each other, collaborated on a project together,  and were friends.

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Don Buchla was born in Southgate, California, in 1937 to a test pilot and a teacher. As a child, he demonstrated a natural facility for electronics by building crystal radio sets, and even a ham radio. He also created numerous acoustic and electro-acoustic musical instruments out of welded steel and other components.

In 1955, Don enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley, and graduated with a major in physics in 1959. In pursuit of his PhD, Don worked at the University of California’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, building klystrons that would be used in one the first particle accelerators. Through this work, he was also able to work on a number of NASA projects.

But Don wasn’t pleased with how Berkeley responded to some of the cultural changes of the 1960s and dropped out.

Don was a composer and studying at Berkeley exposed him to musique concrète, a 20th Century compositional style that employed the recording and rearrangement of sounds. He had a tape recorder, but found out that he could rent a more-powerful three-track tape recorder from the recently-formed San Francisco Tape Music Center, which was created by composers Ramon Sender and Morton Subotnick to explore the tape music medium.

On one visit to the SFTMC to use the three-track recorder, Don was mistaken by Morton Subotnick as a person who had been contacted about designing a ring modulator. Luckily, Don’s collegiate and professional experiences working with electronics made him easily capable of designing one.

Don was excited about applying electronics to music and talked to Morton about what could be done. One of his first efforts was an optical oscillator. However, what Subotnick and Sender really sought was to get away from cutting and splicing tape and to move toward something like an analog computer: a compositional tool that would allow composers to directly create their own music without going into a large studio.

At this time, the SFTMC received a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation that would fund their 1964-1965 season. They allocated $500 of this money to commission Don Buchla to build an “electronic studio in a box.”

Don’s previous work with analog computers meant that the choice to employ transistors and voltage-control seemed obvious. By implementing voltage control, the oscillators could be directed to play discrete notes instead of gliding across all of the frequencies that separated two different notes under manual knob control. The concept of “parameterizing everything” excited him; the user would not have to turn a knob back and forth like they had in the days of using large scientific oscillators.

Along those same lines, Don envisioned a voltage-controlled, transistorized device that would replace the tedious and laborious process of recording oscillator frequencies to tape and splicing them together to get sequences of notes. This process was the bane of both the musique concrète and Elektronishe Musik disciplines due to the effort, precision, and time it required. Don’s device would replace the process by changing the frequency of an oscillator using sequences of preset voltages. The 16 stages of the device represented 16 fewer tape splices. Hence, the modular transistorized sequencer was born.

In 1965, Don delivered a small, voltage-controlled modular unit to the SFTMC that featured oscillators, ring modulators, a sequencer, and more. Performers employed it with great success at counter-culture festivals in San Francisco.

The traditional piano- or organ-style keyboard, as a controller, didn’t make sense to Don. He sought a more congruent and expressive means of controlling his equipment. So, instead of using the keyboard, he created touch-sensitive pads that allowed control of his modules without what he perceived as the limitations imposed by the traditional layout of the keyboard.

Don had this to say about his synthesizer controller:

“They [the ports] were all capacitance-sensitive touch-plates, or resistance-sensitive in some cases, organized in various sorts of arrays.… I saw no reason to borrow from a keyboard, which is a device invented to throw hammers at strings and, later on, for operating switches for electronic organs and so on. A keyboard is dictatorial. When you’ve got a black-and-white keyboard there, it’s hard to play anything but keyboard music. And when there’s not a black-and-white keyboard, you get into the knobs and the wires and the interconnections and timbres, you get involved in many other aspects of the music, and it’s a far more experimental way. It’s appealing to fewer people, but it’s more exciting.”

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Don created a larger and more complex system called the “Buchla 100 Series Modular Music System.” This would be the device that Morton Subotnick used to create the popular and groundbreaking electronic piece Silver Apples of the Moon (1968), which exposed the world to not only Subotnick’s avant-garde work, but also to Buchla’s synthesizer designs.

1968 was an interesting year for the history of modular synthesis. Morton Subotnick released a seminal album of modular synthesizer music that embodied the Buchla paradigm. Wendy Carlos released a modular synthesizer album, Switched-On Bach, that embodied the Moog paradigm. In both instances, synthesists exposed the sounds and functions of the synthesizer they had mastered, and in both instances those albums served as an introduction to the world of those synthesizers.

 

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One might be quick to jump to make a comparison to the styles of music for both albums, but to do so is to miss the point. The point is that each type of modular synthesizer inspired composers to pursue different avenues of implementation, and to embrace different philosophies of creation. The spurious concept that the inventors were in a competition is a red herring. Each innovator provided a different, but invaluable, tool for composers.

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Morton Subotnick with his Buchla modular synthesizer

Far more important than what Don Buchla did and when is how Buchla’s personal design concepts influenced his instruments, and how those instruments inspired the composers who used his products. Here are some quotes that convey Don’s unique interactional perspective in regard to his synthesizer design:

I’ve been interested in avant-garde and experimental music far more than I’ve been interested in, as a composer, more traditional form and structure. My instruments have reflected that need.

I’m not that involved with the intricacies of sound as some. I pursue the investigations of timbre, but I’m more concerned with the investigation of musical structure. I think that’s where more music lies, than with what we might call the static timbres.

I think that electronic technology offers us the possibility of divorcing ourselves from the necessity of virtuosity without divorcing ourselves from the possibility of intense and meaningful interaction with our instruments.

Therein lies the exciting possibilities of electronic instruments: The instantaneous remapping of the relationship between input gesture and output response. We’ve only begun to investigate this because of our own ignorance and our dedication to tradition, in that we continue to build electronic instruments with linear additive input structures, assumptive connective structures, and imitative output structures.

[quotes from Don Buchla’s Polyphony interview, 1983]

Buchla’s designs portray his philosophy. He created devices that allowed electronic-music composers to compose in realtime, embrace aleatoric elements, author new timbres, and more. His philosophy led to the creation of not only immediate authorship of electronic music, but immediate performance.

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Don continued to create tools for the creation of electronic music. In 1971, he released the rare 500 Series, which was an early implementation of the combination of digital and analog components. In 1972, he foresaw the distant modular future by creating a small, patchable performance instrument called the “Buchla Music Easel.” In 1978, he began designing a digital polyphonic synthesizer with a “traditional” keyboard called the “Touché” and made only four of them in January 1980.

During the early 1980s, Buchla co-developed the Wideband Interface for Music Performance (WIMP) and for a time installed its connectors alongside those for MIDI on his instruments, but no other manufacturer supported WIMP and it faded away into history. In 1987, he released a massive digital touch-plate-driven synthesizer called the Series 700 and also developed powerful alternative controllers during the late ’80s and early ’90s, the Thunder pad and Lightning wireless-controller series.

At the end of the 20th century, Don collaborated with percussionist/programmer Mark Goldstein and marimbist/sound designer Joel Davel to create the Marimba Lumina mallet MIDI controller/instrument, which can respond independently to as many as four separate mallets simultaneously for gestural control. Bob Moog’s company Moog Music, Inc., in partnership with Don, worked to solidify the design and  distribute Buchla’s Piano Bar, a complex MIDI retrofit for any acoustic piano, during 2002. While most of these systems and instruments were small in production number, they were embodiments of Buchla’s unique and inspirational design philosophy.

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Rarely are an inventor’s visionary inclinations demonstrated to be visionary during his or her lifetime, but Buchla’s synthesizer philosophies began influencing other synthesizer developers within the last decade. With the advent of the Eurorack modular-synthesizer format and the stylistic applications of that format became popular, Buchla’s designs and aesthetic were rediscovered. With the music of performers such as Buchla-user Alessandro Cortini, as well as Buchla-inspired module design companies such as Make Noise and Verbos, the concept of non-keyboard controlled immediate electronic music realization in performance has taken the synthesizer industry by storm. Buchla’s modular philosophy is now alive and popular in this new and expanding market.

Don Buchla’s contributions to the history of synthesis are substantial, varied, and iconic. His work has been an inspiration to many engineers, composers, and musicians. He envisioned a voltage-controlled modular device that would realize the dreams of electronic music composers since the early part of the 20th Century. Today, his work is more popular than ever. He is among the most important innovators in electronic music. We have lost one of our great geniuses, but luckily for us his legacy will endure and inspire countless more.

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Bob Moog, Tome Rhea, and Don Buchla

 

 

2 Responses to “Remembering Synthesizer Innovator Don Buchla (1937-2016)”

  1. Tommy Renino

    I remember Donald Buchla coming to my college, the Crane School of Music in Potsdam New York, back in 1975 and he brought with him his music box, a 12-volt based beauty, which our electronic music department and Professor Donald Funes gladly took possession of, and it was a big beautiful blue suitcase that opened up and we’d define the instrument ourselves with patch cords which were color coded to indicate their different lengths! And I remember Bob Moog making a trip there as well! Ah the good old days.. he was a genius they both were!

  2. Don Buchla (1937-2016) | Electronic Music Performance

    […] and a rememberance on the website of fellow synth designer manufacturer Bob Moog’s company.  http://moogfoundation.org/remembering-synthesizer-innovator-don-buchla-1937-2016/ […]

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