Eurorack

For people living – possibly even born – in the 21st century, Eurorack is a major approach to acquiring an affordable synthesizer. It is not a specific instrument, but a modular synthesizer format originally specified in 1996 by Doepfer Musikelektronik. It has since grown in popularity, and as of 2018 has become the dominant hardware modular synthesizer format, with over 5000 modules available from more than 270 different manufacturers.

Stated another way: If you, as a synthesizer playing person, want to base your synthesizer on modular components, there is no point in acquiring anything that isn’t Eurorack compatible; If you are a synthesizer module manufacturer, there is no point in offering modules that aren’t Eurorack compatible. Eurorack is the unavoidable standard, the intersection between module consumers and producers. Here, in this weblog post, the Eurorack specifications will be examined in some detail.

The mechanical specification for the Eurorack are derived from Eurocard, but with additional power supply and bus board specifications. The power supply is currently specified as A-100 PSU3, updated in 2015. Many cases adhere to the A-100 PSU2 specification, this allow modules to fit into existing (read: used) rack cases.

The Doepfer bus board allows for a maximum of 14 modules to be plugged in. A standard Doepfer case, either rackmount or portable, consists of two rows of 84hp, 6U high, that contain one PSU and two bus boards.

A Doepfer A-100 modular synthesizer, with two modules from Analogue Solutions, and the remainder from Doepfer. Photo: Nina Richards, 2011-12-02.

Doepfer-style bus boards are circuit boards. An alternative to these is a flying bus board. These have similar connections but use a flexible ribbon. This is often preferred, as mounting circuit boards can sometimes prove difficult.

The modules themselves have to meet Eurocard specifications for printed circuit board (PCB) cards that can be plugged together into a standard chassis which, in turn, can be mounted in a 19-inch rack. The chassis consists of slotted card guides top and bottom, into which cards are slid so they stand on end. The spine of each card has one or more connectors which plug into mating connectors on a backplane at the rear of the chassis.

Module height was three rack units (3U) and the width was measured in the Eurocard-specific Horizontal Pitch (hp) standard, where 1hp equals 0.2 inches, or 5.08 mm. The modules were largely low-cost, compact, and had some components on their boards that were socketed instead of soldered down, so the user could, for example, upgrade to a better op-amp IC.

An unpopulated Doepfer LC6 Eurorack case, with power bus. Photo: Ashley Pomeroy, 2020-12-31.

Nathan Thompson, writing as nonlinearcircuits, has posted 33 laser-cut Eurorack cases, plus rails and some other components on Thingverse. Most of the cases date from 2015 and 2016.

Modules connect to a bus board using a 10-to-16 or 16-to-16 pin cable, depending on module design. These 16 pins are arranged in pairs and carry the following signals, from top to bottom: Gate, CV, +5V, +12V, GND, and -12V. The bottom 10 pins do most of the work, providing + and -12V to power the modules. The top two pins are for Doepfer’s optional internal CV and Gate routing. The +5V rail is used on some modules that require more power.

Plugging modules in, is not always as simple as it seems. Experienced Eurorack users will rigorously check connections before powering up, no matter how long they’ve been working with the system. Typically, the red stripe on the ribbon cable connecting the modules to the bus board must line up with -12V. This should be labeled on the module, and is always labeled on the bus board. Plugging a module incorrectly may have expensive ramifications.

A-100 PSU2 provides 1200 mA = milliamps of current to both the +12V and -12V rails. This has to be compared with the power drawn by a module. This has to be less than what the PSU specifies. The A-100 PSU3 also provides +5 V of power.

With the classic Doepfer case, a user would need to consume less than 1 200 mA on both rails. Modules should be almost evenly split between the two bus boards. If a module requires +5V, most manufacturers, including Doepfer as of 2015, either a PSU3 has to be used, or an adapter, which takes current from the +12V rail. The amperage required on the +5V rail will be subtracted from that available current on the +12V rail. The power specifications in Eurorack are not technically standardized, but most follow the Doepfer standard.

Perhaps the most important consideration, but one that may be difficult to answer for someone new to synthesizers and/ or Eurorack, is deciding on the type of rig to make.

Some people refer to a classic analogue synth, a rig capable of generating its own waveforms with wave-shaping tools to add character including textures and timbres to the generated signal. Another approach is to build an effects rack that processes sound generating elsewhere. These can be monophonic, stereo or polyphonic. Below this, one can build a drum machine that is focused on rhythm, rather than more tonal qualities.

One major advantage of Eurorack is its modular nature, allowing an opportunity to add and delete modules. To construct a self-contained instrument one needs: an oscillator, a filter, a voltage controlled amplifier (VCA), two envelope generators, one for the filter and another for the VCA, an effects unit, a mixer and/ or an output module.

Beginners are often encouraged to choose an analogue oscillator. These are easy to find and use, while still offering opportunities for creative expression.

Voltage-controlled oscillator (VCO) generate waveforms—sine, triangle, sawtooth, ramp or square waves— that are slightly unstable, with fluctuations in pitch and timbre as the voltage changes over time, this gives the oscillator a unique character.

Filters impact sounds the most. For better or worse, many modern synths use filters with characteristics that emulate those found on specific vintage synthesizers.

Robert Moog’s (1934 – 2005) lasting impact on synthesizers, starts with his dictate of 1 V per octave. Increasing the voltage going into a VCO by 1 volt raises its pitch by one octave. To understand this, consider a piano and how it is tuned. Convention dictates that middle C is referred to as C4. Tuning is based on A4, two white keys below, or to the left of, middle C. A4 has a standard frequency of 440 Hz. For convenience, it will be assumed that this is produced by a VCO signal of 4V. Thus, the relationship between note, voltage and frequency can be expressed by: A0 = 0V = 27,5 Hz; A1 = 1V = 55 Hz; A2 = 2V = 110 Hz; A3 = 3V = 220 Hz; A4 = 4V = 440 Hz; A5 = 5V = 880 Hz; A6 = 6V = 1 760 Hz; A7 = 7V = 3 520 Hz; A8 = 8V = 7 040 Hz. Note: Not all VCOs are turned to A in this fashion. As can be seen, above, this results in an exponential relationship between voltage and frequency, as each change in octave requires an additional doubling or halving in frequency. An accurate reproduction of this exponential curve in modules is difficult in analogue synthesizers because temperature changes and the ageing of electronic components, often referred to as tracking errors, can impact pitch.

An aside: Many Japanese synthesizers, such as those made by Yamaha or Korg, use a system where voltage is proportional to frequency. If A1 = 1 V, then 2A = 2 V, 3A = 4 V, 4A = 8 V. In other words, it takes a doubling or halving of the voltage to result in an octave change.

There are three basic approaches to acquiring modules that can be used with Eurorack. These are 1) assembled systems; 2) DIY from kits; 3) DIY from components. All three of these approaches will be discussed below.

Assembled Systems

Moog in the late 1960s released synthesizer modules Ic, IIc and IIIc followed by the Ip, IIp and IIIp These were followed in the early 1970s by System 10, 12, 15, 35 and 55. These were all extremely expensive, based on a discrete transistor designs. The separate modules – such as oscillators, amplifiers, envelope generators, filters, noise generators, ring modulators, triggers and mixers – were connected using patch cords, which also enabled them to control each other. This produced a distinctive sound that made its way into many contemporary recordings. Production of all these except system 15, 35 and 55 modules had stopped by 1973. These last three lasted until 1981. Moog released new versions of some of these since 2014, but these typically cost US$ 35 000.

The patents and other rights to Moog’s modular circuits expired in the 1990s. With the expiration of these rights, other manufacturers have been able to offer sound clones of these modules, many in the Eurorack format. Since 2020, Behringer has been one of these.

The Behringer 960 Sequential Controller Photo: Behringer

The Behringer 960 sequencer controller replicates the operation of System 55 but using modern components, and built so that can fit in a standard Eurorack case. It is also affordable, at about NOK 1 600.

DIY from kits

Dreadbox Dysphonia Eurorack synth module Photo: Dreadbox

For slightly more money, about NOK 2 200, one could also buy a Dreadbox Dysphonia, that was offered as a kit in 2021-11. As with many kits, it was made as a single run. Once the kits from that batch are sold, no additional kits will be made. Dreadbox describes this as buy now or cry later. On 2022-01-19, one was being offered for sale for NOK 4 000. Despite the hype, one can usually expect something similar being offered in the future, but there will be differences, sometimes even improvements.

The main advantage of this kit is that It could be used as a stand-alone desktop synthesizer, or be fitted into a Eurorack. To facilitate both purposes, It comes with a USB to Eurorack power converter. This type of kit is claimed to be well suited for inexperienced DIY construction. Instructions are typically easy to understand, and solder together!

The Dysphonia consists of 13 individual sections that offer an affordable, compact, modular patch system, if one is prepared to build the system from parts. It consists of a single analogue oscillator comes with 4 waveforms that you can patch independently through 3 VCAs = voltage controlled amplifiers, and a 3 channel mixer before being subjected to a 24dB 4-pole lowpass filter and 12dB 2-pole multimode filter. The low pass filter can also self-oscillate to provide additional tones. In addition to an analogue LFO = low frequency oscillator ad envelope, there is a digital modulator providing 4 different modes with low frequency oscillator (LFO), Envelope, Random and CC = continuous control, a MIDI = musical instrument digital interface message capable of transmitting a range of values, usually 0-127. These are commonly used for controlling volume (#7), pan (#10), data slider position (#6), mod wheel (#1) and other variable parameters. This can enhance music, but an over-use of these messages can result in MIDI log-jam, where the amount of data sent exceeds the supported bandwidth. There is also a MIDI-to-CV = control voltage, module which provides analogue to digital and digital to analogue conversions, allowing the module to intereact with a keyboard, computer, phone or almost any other device. There is also a Hybrid Echo module.

DIY from components

One useful source of updated electronic information comes from Elektor magazine. A green subscription provides everything digitally, including back issues. Elektor publishes electronic projects, background articles and designs aimed at engineers, enthusiasts, students and others. It also sells printed circuit boards (PCBs), kits and modules. PCB design work is usually available without charge from their website. Microcontroller and/or computer based projects normally come with program source code and other necessary files.

This is also a good source of synth designs that take advantage of modern electronic components with methodologies that are suitable for hobbyists.

Gear Acquisition Syndrome

One of the major challenges with Eurorack, is that it encourages the acquisition of excessive amounts of gear. Gear acquisition syndrome (GAS) is a real psychological challenge, satirically documented by Steely Dan guitarist Walter Becker (1950 – 2017) in a 1994-04 Guitar Player magazine article (p. 15), where G originally stood for guitar. Because the many providers of Eurorack offer a wide variety of relatively low-cost components, often with specific but limited characteristics, it is tempting to buy just one more! Some people realize compulsive shopping should be resisted. Those who need the advice, will probably not follow it.

The seven key stages of GAS are discussed in a 2022-08-18 Music Radar article. These are: dissatisfaction, desire, ‘research’, the purchase, guilt, acceptance and relapse. Relapse, this last “cruellest stage of GAS can hit anywhere between a year to eighteen months after the purchase, although the time passed invariably depends on the amount of cash spent and the amount of meals you’ve had to eat from a tin as a consequence.” Once again, the article refers specifically to guitars, but also applies to synths, and by extension Eurorack modules.

Another weblog post tentatively titled DIY Synths and currently scheduled for publication 2023-03-25, contains more detailed information about synth circuits, especially from kits.

Sequential

This synth is described as a Sequential DSI = Dave Smith Instruments Prophet-10 Rev-4 Synthesizer. It is available new in 2022, and costs about NOK 45 000 delivered to Norway. I will not be buying one.

Dave Smith (1950 – 2022), educated in electrical engineering and computer science at the University of California, Berkeley, bought a MiniMoog in 1972. In San Francisco, in 1974, he made a hardware sequencer = a hardware device or software program that can record, edit or play back music, using note and other performance information, for himself. Then he made three other sequences, and sold them under the name Sequential Circuits. These four analog sequencers could be used with Moog and ARP synthesizers. In 1975, Sequential Circuits went on to make an unknown number of digital hardware sequencers, and then programmers, similar, but slightly more advanced devices that, can change the settings and other characteristics of a synthesizer. By 1976, aided by John Scott Bowen, these had become the Model 800 Sequencer, and Model 700 Programmer.

In 1977, the Prophet-5 started life as a Prophet-10, a synthesizer with ten voices of polyphony. It was unstable and overheated. This, in turn, made it difficult to tune. To construct a viable product, half of the electronics were removed, resulting in five voices of polyphony. It was renamed the Prophet-5. This machine was jointly designed by Smith and Bowen, with Bowen responsible for the sound design. Later, he created most of the Sequential’s sounds and sequences, and much of the User Interface (UI). The Prophet-5 was the first fully programmable polyphonic synthesizer and the first musical instrument with an embedded microprocessor, and a programmable memory. This allowed users to store sounds and access them instantly. It eliminated the need for a synth to be reprogrammed after even minor experimentation with sound. The Prophet-5 was especially praised for its ability to produce a standard package of familiar sounds. Between 1978 and 1984, about 6 000 units were produced.

After this, additional products were made including the Prophet-600 released in 1982 with a musical instrument digital interface (MIDI). In 1987, Sequential faced financial difficultires. It was purchased by Yamaha, who shut it down in 1989.

Smith then began working for Korg on the Wavestation synthesizer. In 2002, he started Dave Smith Instruments. That same year it released the Evolver synthesizer. In 2008, it released the Prophet ’08, an affordable eight-voice analog synthesizer. In 2015, Yamaha returned the Sequential Circuits brand name to Smith. In 2018 Smith released the Prophet-X, which featured sample playback and digitally controlled oscillators. On the 40th anniversary of the Prophet-5, (2018-08-31) Dave Smith Instruments rebranded as Sequential. Despite the release of a newer version of the Prophet-5 on 2020-09-30, it was announced on 2021-04-27 that Sequential had been acquired by Focusrite, a British audio company known for its audio interfaces.

Finding a suitable Prophet

In the text below, prices are stated in Norwegian kroner (NOK). To aid in conversion 1 CAD = 7.46 NOK; 1 € = 10.12 NOK; 1 USD = 9.45 NOK on 2022-06-04, on the date of this post’s publication.

Selecting a suitable Prophet is dependent on a person’s intentions and wealth. Those with the economic means who want to acquire an investment with extreme growth potential, probably should have bought an original Prophet-5 at least twenty years ago. If they are content with an ostentatious machine to intimidate others, these machines still offer opportunities.

Those a few rungs below on the economic ladder, content with impressing others, may want to consider a model, currently being made, a Sequential Prophet-10 Rev-4 Synth is being produced. The company is now owned by Focusrite. The synth costs about NOK 45 000. Its specifications include the use of some dated, but genuine, components, along with modern replacements, retaining the sound of the original Prophet-5, but with ten voices.

Musicians who simply want the sounds of a Prophet synth can usually obtain these cheaply, by using a clone or a virtual instrument.

One clone is a Behringer Pro-1 (NOK 3 000), a fairly rudamentary synthesizer based on the sounds of a Prophet-5, but with a single voice. It has numerous specifications that only synth fanboys understand or care about. There are claims that Behringer released a sixteen voice Pro-16 in 2021. I have not been able to find any information about it.

In terms of virtual instruments, Bowen worked for Native Instruments, to develop their Pro 5 software synthesizer emulator, released in 1999. It was followed by the Pro 52 in 2000 and the Pro 53 in 2003. He also contributed to Creamware’s Prophet and Prophet Plus emulators in 2003. Arturia released the Prophet V, in 2006. There are also totally free virtual instruments that can do almost the same, but these usually come without any guarantees.

For those more interested in experimentation than reproducing a marketable sound product, attention is directed to the Notes and Volts YouTube channel.

Note: Dave Smith died 2022-05-31.

Donna Summer (1948 – 2012)

Possibly the most common photograph of Donna Summer used to promote her 1977 recording of I feel love. This photograph, without this text, but with track listings, participating musicians and other recording details, originally occupied the reverse of the I Remember Yesterday album sleeve. It has repeatedly been used in other contexts.

This post is being published just prior to the 10th anniversary of the death of Donna Summer, born LaDonna Gaines on 1948-12-31 in Boston, Massachusetts, and who died 2012-05-17 in Naples, Florida. It focuses on one track, I feel love (1977), but attempts to put this track into context. It was written by Summer, Giorgio Moroder (1940 – ) and Pete Bellotte (1943 – ). These two men produced much of Summer’s work throughout the 1970s at their recording studio, Musicland, in Munich, Germany.

At that time, disco, formerly discothèque, music was in vogue. Discothèques emerged in World War II Paris, as the playing of phonograph records at dance halls substituted for live musicians, increasingly unavailable due to the war. By the 1970s, this music had become formulaic, relying on a four-on-the-floor beat = a uniform 4/4 time, where a bass drum is struck on every beat, and a syncopated = off the main beat, baseline. In contrast with other popular genres, there was less emphasis on a lead guitar, and more emphasis on electronic keyboards, horns and strings. Musicland was particularly noted for its early use of synthesizers.

Starting in the 1950s, popular recorded music often involved a band of, typically, four musicians of which one was a lead singer, potentially the same person as the lead guitarist, and a single audio/ sound/ recording engineer working at a mixing console with the result fed into a multi-track tape recorder.

One significant step beyond this emerged in 1964, when Phil Spector (1939 – 2021) developed a wall of sound, which involved the use of multiple instruments to provide a richer sound, on the recordings. This was then edited down into a monophonic track. Yes, many musicians of the 1960s, were opposed to stereophonic recordings, claiming that it transferred too much audio control to the listener! In live performances, a wall of Marshall stacks, cabinets containing tube amplifiers and 4 x 300 mm speakers, became its own wall of rich sounds. Admittedly, these stacks in many cases violated norms/ laws/ regulations about noise, and may have contributed to the later hearing loss of people attending.

In the 1970s, disco intensified this layered approach, making separate recordings of the elements that would make up the final track. There were more musicians, and more recording staff involved in the process. It was often seen as a reaction to rock music which, in the 1960s, had risen to a dominating position.

I feel love, is the final track of Summer’s fifth album, I Remember Yesterday (1977), that provides 35m19s of music. That is, in most areas where the album was released. Some sources state that there were exceptions. The first track, the same as the album title, was intended to represent dance music from the 1940s. The second, Love’s Unkind, was inspired by the 1950s. The third, Back in Love, Again, mirrored the sound of the 1960s. The fourth track was a repeat of the first. On the reverse side, there were two disco songs, representing the 1970s, then a ballad. The album ends with a futuristic, I Feel Love.

Many people have argued that for Moroder and Bellotte, a song and a sound from tomorrow meant synthesizers and rhythm machines. Yet, that might be a simplification. There were many other workers on the track included: Robbie Wedel, with a background in electronics and composer Eberhard Schoener (1938 – ), both operated a Moog synth. At the time these were physically large, and fitted with large numbers of patch cables, that connected oscillators, voltage control units, triggers and an arpeggiator = sound generator.

A common approach to writing a song, is to perform it first on a keyboard with the composer also singing the lyrics, possibly just inside her/ his head. From that a more elaborate studio arrangement could be developed: in rock music using the band itself; in disco using studio musicians.

I Feel Love followed a different approach. Moroder and Bellotte worked initially on the song’s bassline. Wedel and engineer Jürgen Koppers (1941 – 2006) lay down a reference pulse put on track 16, of a 16-track tape recorder, that was used to synchronize the tracks as they were developed. This produced an exact timing reference. Only after this was done was the melody developed, resulting in the song sung by Donna Summer. She developed lyrics, and a melody that would complement the existing work on the track. I Feel Love is generally regarded as a difficult song to sing. This approach to developing music was later adopted by others working in the disco, EDM = electronic dance music, and techno genres.

One further notable characteristic of the song is the effective use of signal delays. The original bassline signal proceeds through the left speaker channel on time, but is almost imperceptibly delayed going through the right speaker. This required stereophonic sound, and listeners reacted positively to this.

Another innovation by Wedel was to make sound clips on the Moog, that create sounds resembling/ imitating a hi-hat or a snare drum. Unfortunately, not all the percussion effects could be produced by the Moog. It was difficult to produce the sound of a kick drum. Thus, a human, Keith Forsey (1948 – ), known for his precise timekeeping, was used to produce much of the percussion sounds. It was anything but a drum solo. Rather, each drum in the kit was recorded separately to produce a totally clean sound, preventing the bleeding of sounds that could potentially corrupt other sounds. Forsey has commented that this is an unnatural, counter-intuitive, frustrating way of playing: “Your body has to dance if you want the people to dance.”

I will end by stating that the original version of I Feel Love is not my favourite. I am more attracted to assorted other remixes. Patrick Cowley (1950 – 1982) has produced several remixes. Here is one that is 15 minutes long. Cowley is also notable for his Hi-NRG dance music compositions. These days, I am more attracted to the version of Belgian Moreno J(urgen), this one. In both cases the voice of Donna Summer still dominates.

For further insights into I Feel Love, people may want to begin with this article in Wikipedia.

Note: Upcoming weblog posts: on Saturday, 2022-05-21 there will be a post about World Goth Day #14, appearing one day before the event. Then, on Sunday, 2022-05-22 there will be a post about Otl Aicher (1922 – 2012), on the centenary of his birth. Both at 12:00 CEST (Central European Summer Time) = 10:00 UTC (Coordinated Universal Time, successor to Greenwich Mean Time).

Blade Runner

Poster for Blade Runner, the Director’s Cut (2007) depicting Los Angeles, after a nuclear attack in 2019. Here Deckard (protrayed by Harrison Ford) and Rachel (portrayed by Sean Young) are shown.

Part 1: For living humans

One of my fictional heroes is Angus MacGyver, portrayed by Richard Dean Anderson (1950 – ). I appreciate his non-violent problem solving that saturates the television series, that originally ran from 1985 to 1992, with specials beyond that. I have not watched any episodes of the 2016 restart. That appreciation, and my pacifist stance more generally, is undoubtedly related to viewing World War II, as the last major hot war, with the ideological aftermath resulting in a cold war. However, like many people, my values are being challenged with the Ukrainian reality of a Russian invasion.

In 1998, I attended a three-day seminar about violence in film. Each day, two separate movies were introduced, and we were asked to watch, reflect on and discuss these. Thus, in total, we examined six different films. None of these resembled anything like MacGyver, a fact I found disappointing. Rather, there was a focus on gratuitous violence, brutal acts lacking discernable literary, artistic, political or scientific value, according to one definition. While films from several different genres were presented, the organizers of the seminar were obviously very keen about science fiction.

I am not particularly interested in reading fantasy or science fiction. The outer edge of my comfort zone is found in magic realism. Part of the reason is that I have little interest in visiting other planets, or other times, when I have explored so little of this beautiful planet, in this modern, accessible age. However, there are some few science fiction films that attract me.

This weblog post builds on one of the films shown at this seminar. Three of the other ones were: A Clockwork Orange (1971), directed by Stanley Kubrick (1928 – 1999); Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), directed by James Cameron (1954 – ); and, The Eel (うなぎ, Unagi, 1997) directed by Shōhei Imamura (1926 – 2006). The other two films are forgotten. One of the main presenters at the seminar was Norwegian novelist, children’s book writer, screenwriter and film critic, Erlend Loe (1969 – ).

Twenty-four years after this seminar, Putin’s War is raging in Europe. Violence is no longer of theoretical interest. Many wonder how people can use art and other pastimes to address their concerns about war. One could ask which artistic genres are more/ most effective at suppressing violence, at the same time that they stop dictators from usurping the rights of others. Among the more popular of these flavours are: film, music, painting, theatre and writing fiction. Not everyone has elevated gaming into an art form, but it is also included, as have physical representations in the form of 3D models and costumes.

People approach culture in different ways. In this weblog post, variations on a single work will be used as an example. That work is Philip Kindred Dick’s (1928 – 1982) novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), set in San Francisco in 1992 or, in later editions of the book, 2021. It takes place after a nuclear war. Dick’s inspiration for writing this novel was Fear (1940), a psychological thriller/ horror short story, written by L. Ron Hubbard (1911 – 1986).

A. Written materials

The first cultural flavour looked at here involves written materials. The advantage of reading a novel or short story is that it invites readers to co-create using their imagination. One disadvantage, is that this co-creation involves abstract thinking. Another is that many people have dyslexia, and related conditions, that prevent their enjoyment of this approach.

Rather than just reading, a more productive approach is to reflect on the work in question, and to produce a new work based on it. This could be another novel or short story, but it could, just as easily, be a filmscript, a theatrical play, or a poem.

B. Audio

There are many people who prefer to listen to audio books/ podcasts, instead of reading. Hearing disabilities can also prevent people from using this approach. Searching for information about relevant versions of the novel on the internet, the first link I came across was a free audiobook. One advantage of an audio format, is that it allows both sound effects as well as music to be part of a product. Once again, it is possible for the average person to create their own audio products, if only for family and friends.

C. Film

Ridley Scott’s (1937 – ) dystopian, science fiction film, Blade Runner (1982) is the work being focused on in this weblog post. It was also one of the films focused on at the seminar on violence in film, in 1998. For me, it is especially appreciated for its inability to depict Los Angeles in 2019. In the film, flying cars (spinners) co-exist with pay phones. Even Chester Gould (1900 – 1985) was able to equip Dick Tracy with a personal device, the wrist radio, an icon that dates from 1946-01-13.

Seven different versions of Blade Runner have been released, many massaged primitively by Warner Bros, who were concerned about the film’s viability, when the initial release resulted in low attendance, and confused audiences. The Director’s Cut (2007) is regarded as the definitive edition.

The protagonist, Rick Deckard, portrayed by Harrison Ford (1942 – ), is a bounty hunter/ blade runner, adapt at killing escaped androids/ replicants. Deckard’s life, still portrayed by Ford, continues in the film sequel, Blade Runner 2049 (2017), directed by Canadian Denis Villeneuve (1967 – ). The events of the original film and its sequel involve two different time periods separated by 30 fictional years and 35 real years. It is uncertain if Deckard is human, or a variant of something that he is hunting. Dick, Ford and Villeneuve say human, Scott says replicant. Villeneuve also adds, that the question is more important than the answer.

Rachael (Tyrell) was a Nexus-7 replicant, portrayed by Sean Young (1959 – ) in the original Blade Runner. In Blade Runner 2049, she was portrayed by body double Loren Peta (? – ) with Sean Young’s facial features de-aged and overlaid using computer graphics.

Today, everyone can be a film maker using an ever present cell phone to record audio and video, there are many free and open source apps that can be used to edit content, and there are many mechanisms that can be used to deliver such productions to a waiting audience, including Odysee, PeerTube and YouTube. I almost wrote a reminder to people to film in landscape format, but then wondered if that was just yet another indication that I was raised in a different millennium. Younger people might also prefer to view films on their cell phones, and appreciate a portrait format.

D. Theatre

Theatrical presentations can be developed from scratch, from novels and other written works including screenplays. They can also be inspired by almost anything. Street theatre involves a dramatic performance in some form of outdoor public space. Typically, the audience is unaware of the event, before it erupts before them.

E. Games

Westwood Studios was started by Brett Sperry (ca. 1960 – ) and Louis Castle (ca. 1960 – ) in 1985 in Los Vegas, Nevada. Their 1997 point and click game of Blade Runner, is a sidequel = side sequel. Many gamers prefer to use the Japanese term, gaiden (外伝, = outside legends). In both cases it refers to an original story running parallel to an established plot in a film or novel, sometimes interacting with it.

Computer games are regarded as the most profitable of the various entertainment industries. While estimates of revenue vary, assorted source provide the following values, in billions of dollars in 2020: games: $ 180, film $ 100, professional sports $ 75, music $ 23.

F. Physical representations

One very satisfying moment in my teaching career occurred when an entire class of metalworking students told me they had taken over a 3D printer, and were going to use it for the next week to make the components of a 3D model of a 4 cylinder internal combustion engine. When it was completed and assembled even the least mentally endowed of the students understood, in detail, how an engine worked.

I have encouraged many of my fashion obsessed female students to make their own clothing. Some few have even followed that advice.

In terms of Blade Runner, the design and construction of vehicle (spinner) models would undoubtedly appeal to many young males. Yet, I suspect that the design and construction of clothing appropriate for Los Angeles in 2049, would have greater appeal to many young females.

Getting rather conventional clothing items, such as T-shirts, with artwork featuring Saint Javelin, a female icon carrying a modern shoulder anti-tank weapon.

G. Painting

There are many derivative works of art that can be found that are based on Blade Runner. Any search engine will provide a list of them.

In my opinion, the one painting that best depicts the horrors of war is Pablo Picasso’s (1881 – 1973) Guernica (1937). It commemorates the 1937-04-26 bombing of the town of that name by the Nazi German Luftwaffe’s Condor Legion and the Fascist Italian Aviazione Legionaria, destroying the town and killing a disputed number of people, possibly up to 1 650.

Pablo Picasso’s Guernica (1937)

H. Other activities

I would like to end this section by referring to Keri Smith (? – ), a Canadian conceptual artist. I know her best through one work, The Guerrilla Art Kit (2007). She has previously worked at Emily Carr University of Art and Design, in Vancouver. She is now on the advisory board of the Center for Artistic Activism, in New York city. Her main focus is on open works, a term invented by Umberto Eco (1932 – 2016), to describe pieces of art designed to be completed by the user. At 144 pages, The Guerrilla Art Kit, is sufficiently long. There is a section on etiquette, and another on tools. Much of it consists of 32 exercises, mostly fun yet provocative. Guerrilla gardening is one of my favourites, as is the portable idea dispenser.

Keri Smith, The Guerilla Art Kit (2007)

Part 2: For synthesizer fanchildren

One could argue, possibly even convincingly, that Part 2 is actually just flavour I. That is how it began, although flavours A to H were missing at the time. Re-reading the completed text, it was obvious that this section would appeal to about 1% of the intended audience, which would round off to about 0 readers. In addition, when written, it was based on the premise that a major manufacturer of synthesizers would make an inexpensive clone of the Yamaha CS-80. So far, this has not happened, and I have ended up buying an entirely different synthesizer.

Vangelis (born Evángelos Odysséas Papathanassíou, 1943 – 2022) composed the film score for the original Blade Runner film, largely using a Yamaha CS-80 analogue synthesizer. The Icelandic composer Jóhann Gunnar Jóhannsson (1969 – 2018) was hired to make the music for the sequel. To my ears it sounds similar to the original, but it was removed from the project by Villeneuve. Here is a sample of Jóhannsson’s theme for the film. He was replaced by Benjamin Wallfische (1979 – ) and Hans Zimmer (1959 – ). Here is a sample of a theme by Wallfische and Zimmer.

The Yamaha CS-80 analog synthesizer was made from 1977 to 1980. Initially, it cost US$ 6 900. Today, a used one can cost over US$ 100 000. It supported true 8-voice polyphony, meaning that it could play multiple independent melody lines simultaneously. It came with two independent synthesizer layers per voice, each with its own set of front panel controls, in addition to a number of hardwired preset voice settings and four parametric settings stores based on banks of sub-miniature potentiometers. This contrasted with one of its main competitors, the Sequential Prophet 5, that used programmable digital presets, to achieve equivalent results.

The CS-80 excelled in live performance. Its layered keyboard was both velocity-sensitive (like a piano’s) and pressure-sensitive (known as after-touch) but unlike most modern keyboards the aftertouch could be applied to individual voices rather than in common, and a ribbon controller allowing for polyphonic pitch-bends and glissandos. This can be heard on the Blade Runner soundtrack by Vangelis, as well as the composer’s soundtrack for the film Chariots of Fire, and the bassline of Peter Howell’s interpretation of the 1980 theme tune to the BBC science fiction show Doctor Who.

Almost forty years ago, in a 1984 interview Vangelis described the CS-80 as: “The most important synthesizer in my career — and for me the best analogue synthesizer design there has ever been.”

The CS-80 is one of three instruments most frequently described as the pre-eminent polyphonic analog synthesizer. The other two are the Sequential Circuits Prophet-5, and Oberheim OB-X.

There are two plug-in instrument software emulations of the CS-80 for usage in digital audio workstation, music sequencer, and other software which supports the plug-in formats that these instruments were implemented and released in: the Arturia CS-80 V, released in 2003, and the Memorymoon ME80 released in 2009.

As previously noted, when this post was first being prepared, it was expected that Behringer would announce the production of an equivalent clone, the DS-80. It all began with a tweet on 2019-04-30. However, no product has appeared, yet. Indeed, there are comments that chip shortages are causing production delays and cancellations. This is especially affecting low-cost synths.

For those who prefer hardware synths, Studio Electronics announced their new Boomstar SE80 synthesizer in 2014, which includes a cloned filter section of the CS-80.

Since 2018, Deckard’s Dream Mk2 (DDRM2), an analogue polyphonic synthesizer clone of the CS-80, has been available in two versions, a standard build or as a kit from Black Corporation in Japan. Yes, the name, Deckard’s Dream, is taken from the protagonist in the Blade Runner films!

At the time of writing 2021-12-29, the price of the built version is US$ 3 749 including worldwide shipping. This is a rackmount synthesizer with CS-80 inspired architecture and features that supports polyphonic aftertouch using compatible third-party external keyboards.

A Black Corporation Deckard’s Dream Mk2 synthesizer suitable for installation in a rack. Photo: Black Corporation.

Black corporation informs potential buyers that the DDRM2 offers eight voices, each with two identical layered parts consisting of a 100% analog voltage controlled oscillator made with discrete waveshapers, analog lowpass and highpass filter (each with their own cutoff and resonance settings,) noise generator, unique multi-segment filter envelope, and VCA + ADSR envelope. Each layer also features its own independent programming section for musical instrument digital interface (MIDI) polyphonic expression (MPE) based velocity and polyphonic aftertouch control of its filter cutoff and amplifier settings.

DDRM2’s perfomance section features global pitch control with coarse & fine-tuning sliders, layer 2 detune slider, independent keyboard range control for each layer, mix balancing between layer 1 and layer 2, global filter cutoff and resonance offsets, and a global low frequency oscillator (LFO) to control both layers’ filter/pitch/amplifiers simultaneously.

DDRM2 also has a programming sections for global MPE-based control over LFO parameters + pitchbend, as well as global key tracking control over the filter and amplifier settings of both layers. There is a global portamento/glissando slider that operates on both layers simultaneously. As expected, DDRM2 has MIDI control, with an ability to store 128 presets per bank, across 10 banks.

If one is interested in impressing neighbours, then there is no substitute for the original Yamaha. The price of a used model is beyond the means of most mortals. If one is interested in making music, then there are numerous choices. One of these is a Yamaha Reface CS, a 37 key mini synth, based on the CS-80, launched in 2019. It costs about US$ 450. This is considerably cheaper than a DDRM2, which is also too expensive in relation to its value. Perhaps the cheapest hardware solution is an Arturia Microfreak connected to an outboard effects = FX unit like Bluesky. This can recreate all of the DDRM2 and CS sounds, for about US$ 300.

Other fanchildren will remind you that there is no need for a hardware synth, when a software synth will be able to provide the same level of utility.

Update: This post was updated 2022-05-19 at 21:30 to note the death of Vangelis, today.

Synclavier

A Synclavier II was introduced in 1980. Many claim its fame is due to its cost, which was originally between $200 000 – $300 000. The largest system built and sold by New England Digital Corporation cost $500 000

Dartmouth College deserves praise for its role in starting advanced technological companies in rural environments. One of the first of these was New England Digital Corporation (NED). The company began life in Hanover, New Hampshire (NH), population 9 119, in the 1980 census, then moved to Norwich, Vermont (VT), with a population then of 2 398, located 2.4 km north-east of Hanover, and later to White River Junction, VT, with a current population of 2 286, located 9 km south of Hanover.

A location with a small population can become world famous for its products, but those products have to be carefully selected. In addition, product design will probably need some input from external experts, rather than relying on the efforts of a single entrepreneur, working alone, in a remote area.

On almost every corporate website, and many others, there is a section titled, Our Story or About. The wording is interesting, because it is usually not called Our History, for that would imply some truthiness. With Our Story or About there is more wiggle room for wishful thinking, and self-aggrandizement, and less need for objective facts. On the Synclavier website, the role of external experts needed to make the Synclavier successful has been reduced/ wiggled away. Here, the focus will be on some of the experts that made Synclavier the success it was.

As a university, Dartmouth College, in Hanover, NH is notable for several reasons. It is a rural university, without urban distractions. In the 2021 US News university ranking, Dartmouth College is #13 nationally, and #226 in the world. In 2016, Thayer became the first US national research university with a graduating class of engineers that was over 50% female. In the 1960s, Dartmouth was world famous for its invention of the Basic programming language, released 1964-05-01. In 1978, it became world famous for its founding of the Thayer School of Engineering’s entrepreneurship program, at the Cook Engineering Design Center. At Cook, they solicit industry-sponsored projects for degree candidates to work on. Prior to this, in 1975, one of the first such project resulted in the Synclavier.

Without the support of Dartmouth’s faculty members, it is unlikely that the Synclavier would have existed. The Synclavier has its origins with Jon Appleton (1939 – 2022), a professor of digital electronics, and Frederick Johnson Hooven (1905 – 1985), a part-time professor of engineering. They worked with Dartmouth Thayer School of Engineering research professor Sydney Alonso (1936 – ) and Cameron Warner Jones (ca. 1955 – ), at the time an undergraduate student. These last two apparently met in the university computing centre. They discovered a common interest, that resulted in the Synclavier.

From 1957 to 1961 Appleton was a student at Reed College in Portland, Oregon. During the 1962–1963 school year, he was a music teacher in Sedona, Arizona. From 1963–1966 he was a graduate student at the University of Oregon in Eugene, Oregon. During 1966–1968 he was hired by Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan, to establish an electronic music studio. When the university officials reneged on their promise to develop this studio, Appleton resigned and accepted a position at Thayer school of engineering, at Dartmouth College. He took a leave of absence from Thayer in the mid-1970s to become the head of Elektronmusikstudion (EMS) = Centre for Swedish electroacoustic music and sound-art, established in 1964. It is run as an independent part of Musikverket = Swedish Performing Arts Agency. It is located in Stockholm, Sweden.

Hooven held thirty-eight U.S. patents and devised numerous other inventions that were not patented. His engineering career started before he graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1927. In 1925, at DayFan Radio, he designed improved radio receivers. After graduation he worked for General Motors (GM) where he designed a brake shoe system used on all GM vehicles for twenty-five years.

From 1930 to 1931, Hooven designed automobile suspension systems at Dayton Rubber Company. During 1931 and 1932, he designed a blind aircraft landing system for the American Loth Company. In 1932 he independently produced the first successful high-fidelity crystal phonograph pickup. He worked as vice-president and chief engineer for Bendix’s Radio Products Division from 1935 to 1937, where he developed the first automatic steering system for unmanned flight. From 1937 to 1957, he was self-employed working on product research and development.

In 1957 Fred Hooven went to work for the Ford Motor Company where he supervised the design and development of assorted automobiles. When he left Ford in 1967 he once again become a consultant, but also an adjunct professor of engineering at Thayer, becoming a part-time professor in 1975. He remained in that capacity until his death in 1985.

Civilian inventions include the first radio compass (1936); an automobile ignition system (1948); the first heart-lung machine (1952); the Harris intertype digital electronic phototypesetter (1955); and a front-end drive system for automobiles (1962).

The Synclavier I was released at the end of 1977. It used FM synthesis, re-licensed from Yamaha, and was sold mostly to universities. The initial models used a computer with synthesis modules, later enhancements added a (musical) keyboard and a control panel.

The Synclavier II was released in 1980. Once again, external help was needed. Synthesist and music producer Denny Jaeger suggested that FM synthesis be extended to allow four simultaneous channels to be triggered with one key depression to allow a fuller synthesized sound. This became a key selling point of the model.

Alonso and Jones made significant contributions to the design. Alonso was awarded US Patent 4108035 for a musical note oscillator, in 1978; US Patent 4178822 for musical synthesis envelope control techniques, in 1979; US Patent 4279185 for Electronic music sampling techniques, in 1981; US Patent 4680479 for a method of and apparatus for providing pulse trains whose frequency is variable in small increments and whose period, at each frequency, is substantially constant from pulse to pulse, in 1987; and, US Patent 4726067 for a method of and apparatus for extending the useful dynamic range of digital-audio systems, in 1988. Jointly, they were awarded US Patent 4345500 for their high resolution musical note oscillator, in 1982; and, US Patent 4554855 for their partial timbre sound synthesis method, in 1985.

The original keyboard, referred to as the ORK, was nothing more than an on-off switch. A weighted velocity and pressure-sensitive keyboard, the VPK was licensed from Sequential Circuits. It was identical to that used on their Prophet-T8 synthesizer.

The main contribution made by Synclavier was the development of hardware cards that could be fitted into computers. This included cards for a real-time CPU, input and output, analog-to-digital and digital-to-analog conversion (ADC/ DAC), as well as memory. All of these needed to be programmed to function.

As newer models emerged, Synclavier became less dependent on external consultants, Synclavier music workstations/ digital synthesizers/ polyphonic digital samplers were made from the late 1977 to 1993. Wikipedia provides an overview of these. In 1993 Synclavier went bankrupt, its intellectual property was taken over by a bank, then sold to a Canadian company, Airworks, which itself then foreclosed. This gave Jones the opportunity he needed to buy back critical assets and to restart Synclavier.

Jones pursued other interests than building synthesizers. His bachelor thesis is about an XPL Language Compiler, a simple, small, efficient dialect of the computing language PL/1. PL/1 had been developed by IBM in 1964 to replace Algol, Cobol and Fortran. A variant, Scientific XPL, was used on New England Digital’s ABLE series computers, for laboratory automation and computer networking, as well as controlling music synthesis hardware.

Between 1982 and 1984, Jones studied the double bass with Stuart Sankey at Indiana University, Jacobs School of Music, and was active with the Evansville Philharmonic Orchestra.

His DSP (Digital Signal Processing) engine allowed C Code to run on Windows and MacOS. Moreover, side-by-side testing was carried out with original equipment to ensure the systems sounded identical. Arturia’s Synclavier V was released in its own right to widespread critical acclaim in May 2016. He also brought Synclavier V software synth to Arturia to be included in their V Collection plug-in suite.

In 2019, Jones released Synclavier Go!, an iOS version of the synthesizer, repurposing much of the original DSP engine so that it runs on an iPad, iPhone or iPod Touch. It provided over 1 000 preset timbres, 19 preset libraries and over 100 lossless-quality samples/ sound files. It supports portamento, arpeggiate, mono/poly triggering, and other keyboard modes.

Sources: Jon Appleton; Fred Hooven; Synclavier; Play Synthesizer.

Related

1: Of the readers receiving notifications of weblog posts, only one lives in New Hampshire, at Keene, located about 100 km south of the other NH and VT locations mentioned here. Before I was adopted as an infant, my original first name was Richard. I have good reason to believe that I was named after him. Hello, Dick!

2: My niece, Cally, is currently a student at Oakland University, the Michigan university that had originally hired Jon Appleton to start an electronic music studio. Hello, Cally!

3: On 2022-04-01, I acquired a new toy/ learning machine, a Behringer MS-1 monophonic analogue synth. At a price of NOK 3600/ US$ 400, it is only 0.2% of the cost of the cheapest original Synclaver!

Clavioline

A Clavioline leaflet

The sound of a Clavioline cannot be said to have dominated popular music, but it could be heard on: Del Shannon’s (1934 – 1990) Runaway (1961); the Tornados/ Tornadoes instrumental Telstar (1962), if only from an imitation Univox, and not a real instrument; three of Sun Ra’s (1914 – 1993) albums, including The Magic City (1966); The Beatles’ Baby, You’re a Rich Man (1967). Fast forward to a new millenium, past several notable musicians, to Mike Oldfield (1953 – ), Return to Ommadawn (2017).

Hearing Telstar on a Clavioline can take less than 30 seconds.

The Clavioline is an electronic keyboard instrument, regarded as an immediate precursor of the analogue synthesizer. Constant Martin (1910 – 1995), a French radio technician/ electrical engineer, invented and developed it in 1947.

This was not his first electronic instrument. From 1932 to 1937 Martin developed an organ-like instrument, which used harmonium reeds. It was demonstrated in 1939. In 1943, he constructed another electronic organ that used independent oscillators and harmonic analyzers. In the 1950s, he used recently developed integrated circuits to improve organs and bells. In 1961, he used transistors to add harmonic effects to produce sounds that convincingly sound like a pipe organ. Martin pioneered, some would say revolutionized, the manufacture of electronic instruments. He was concerned about producing a variety of sounds, that could impact many musical genres.

The Clavioline consisted of two physically separate units: a keyboard and an amplifier with speaker. In addition to the 36 conventional, horizontal keys expected, the keyboard also used vertically mounted, front-facing switches (called stops) to alter the tone of the sound produced, along with a vibrato, that provided effects and was the instrument’s defining feature. The vacuum tube oscillator produced almost square waveforms, suitably altered using high-pass and low-pass filters, and the vibrato. After the electric signals were passed from the keyboard to the amplifier unit, the amplifier deliberately added distortion to create the instrument’s signature tones.

The Clavioline was covered by US Patent 2 563 477, filed 1948-05-01, issued 1951-08-07. Information about the invention, including circuit diagrams, can be found here. With his intellectual property protected, Martin , licensed production to others, rather than manufacturing it himself: Henri Selmer in France, who also produced and sold it in the United Kingdom; Gibson in the USA; and Jörgensen Electronic in Germany.

Underneath the keyboard there was a knee lever/ slider consisting of two protruding metal rods. Pushed to the left, this transposed the instrument down an octave, pushed to the right it transposed up an octave, giving the Clavioline a five-octave range.

A Selmer Auditorium = Gibson Standard model provided a five-octave range with 18 stops. These were named 1 to 9, plus O, A, B, V and P, along with four vibrato switches: I, II, III and Amplitude.

A Selmer and Gibson Concert model provided 22 stops. These four additional stops were used to provide greater flexibility. These activated octave dividers that produced a tone one octave (Sub I) and two octaves (Sub II) below the unmodified voice. A Reverb Concert model was also produced for a short period that added a spring reverberator.

 Number stopsLetter stopsVibratoAmplitudeRange
Alto Saxophone2 3IIOffM
Arabian Flute1 4 8IOffH
Bagpipe1 4 8 or 1 9IOffM or H
Banjo3 4B PM
Bass Saxophone4IIIOffL
Bass Violin1VIOffL
Bassoon3 7L
Violoncello1VIIOffL
Church Organ A4 6L or M
Church Organ B4 9L or M
Church Organ C6L or M
Cornet6IOffM
Electric Guitar4PIIOffM
English Horn2 3BM
Harpsichord3 5 6 8PH
Horn2 3IIIOnL
FifeB OH
Flute3 4 5IOffH
French Horn3L
Harpsichord3 5 6 8PM or H
Hawaiian Guitar1 4 6PIIOnM
Hunting Horn3IIIOnL
Mandolin3 6 8PH
Musical Saw3BIIOnH
Muted Gypsy Violin1OIIOnM
Oboe1 4 8IOffM
Orch Horn3IIOffL or M
Piccolo1 4 0IIOffH
Reed-PipeBH
Tenor Saxophone4IIIOffL
Theatre Organ4IIIOnM or H
Trombone3IIOffL
TrumpetIIOffM or H
Viola1O or VIIOnH
Violin1O or VIIOnH
Clavioline Tone3 4 6IIIOnM
Vox Celesta4 5 6IIIOnM
Zither1 4 6PIIIOnM
Selmer published the above list of the switches/ stops that needed to be activated to imitate various instruments.

Harald Bode (1909 – 1987) created a six-octave model using octave transposition, that was made by Jörgensen.

As a monophonic instrument, the Clavioline met with initial success. It also inspired imitation. In England, the Jennings Organ Company produced the Univox, their first successful product with a self-powered electronic keyboard. In Japan, Ace Tone’s first prototype, the Canary S-2, launched in 1962, was based on the Clavioline. However, the Clavioline was unable to compete, when polyphonic synthesizers were introduced.

In 1959, Maxfield Crook (1936 – 2020) modified a Clavioline to create the Musitron, made from assorted discarded electronic components sourced from television sets, amplifiers, reel-to-reel tape machines and household appliances. Because most of its components came from previously patented products, the Musitron was unpatentable. Crook first used it for recording at Berry Gordy’s Detroit studio on an unreleased version of Bumble Boogie. Later, it became world famous, for its performance on Del Shannon’s Runaway (1961).

Much of the information about the Clavioline was provided by Gordon Reid, in an article published in 2007. It also has photographs illustrating the technical details.

Electronic Musicians

Louis & Bebe Barron | Forbidden Planet (Soundtrack ...
Bebe (1925 – 2008) and Louis (1920 – 1989) Barron were credited with the first entirely electronic film score for Forbidden Planet (1956). Norbert Wierner’s Cybernetics: Or, Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine (1948), played an important role in the development of the Barrons’ composition. Cybernetics proposes that certain natural laws of behaviour apply to some complex electronic machines, as well as animals.

Sisters with Transistors is a 1h25m38s video about electronic music’s female pioneers. It begins with an assertion that the history of women has been a history of silence. Undoubtedly, an old male is not the best person to comment on this or on any of the challenges female composers/ musicians faced. However, there are similarities with pop art, where female painters, the initial innovators of the art form, were removed from its history, to be replaced by second-wave male copyists, who had the right connections.

These pop artists include: Dorothy Grebenak (1913 – 1990), Corita Kent (1918 – 1986), Elaine Sturtevant (1924 – 2014), Rosalyn Drexler (1926 – ), Marisol = Maria Sol Escobar (1930 – 2016), Marjorie Strider (1931 – 2014) who is my favourite, Idelle Weber (1932 – 2020), Kiki Kogelnik (1935 – 1997), Evelyne Axell (1935 – 1972), Pauline Boty (1938 – 1966) and Marta Minujín (1943 – ).

I suspect a similar situation may very well be the case with these female electronic music pioneers. Once again, one has to ask how much credit men are taking for creative work undertaken by women?

Two of the composers in this film have been featured in previous weblog posts that promote female composers/ musicians/ songwriters/ singers. These are Pauline Oliveros and Delia Derbyshire. Sisters with Transistors also provides insights into other female composers/ experimenters/ musicians who use audio technology to liberate humankind from traditional instruments and to transform how music is produced.

Keyboard instruments are versatile. A single player can play up to ten notes simultaneously on, say, a piano. With foot pedals and stops, organ players can produce even more. However, a synthesizer offers even greater capabilities, particularly in terms of its ability to construct tones that defy the physical limitations of acoustic instruments. Thus, a synth based composer/ musician has an ability to create a personal sonic universe, then shape the music allowed within it.

The video is particularly useful in presenting a new history of electronic music. That is, it examines visionary women whose radical experimentations with machines redefined the boundaries of music. These women include: Clara Rockmore (1911 – 1998), Bebe Barron (1925 – 2008), Daphne Oram (1925 – 2003), Éliane Radigue (1932 – ), Pauline Oliveros (1932 – 2016), Delia Derbyshire (1937 – 2001), Maryanne Amacher (1938 – 2009), Laurie Spiegel (1945 – ) and Suzanne Ciani (1946 – ).

Two minutes into the video viewers are told it is 1974-04-30. Suzanne Ciani, is speaking. She describes the Buchla synth she will be playing a concert on, then says: “I think they are sensual. May I have a cigarette?” One is immediately taken back into a time period when smoking was an acceptable activity. It was an era when pants/ trousers were not fully acceptable as female attire, when women were expected to give up their identity and assume that of their husbands.

Assignment #1: What collective noun would readers prefer to be used to describe multiple synths? For example, one has a choir of angels, a bunch of bananas, a deck of cards and a cluster of diamonds. Some suggestions are provided, towards the bottom of this post.

The appeal of a synth

As one of the film’s subjects, Laurie Spiegel explains: “We women were especially drawn to electronic music when the possibility of a woman composing was in itself controversial. Electronics let us make music that could be heard by others without having to be taken seriously by the male dominated Establishment.”

As promotional materials for the video express it, within the wider social, political and cultural context of the 20th century, “the documentary reveals a unique emancipation struggle, restoring the central role of women in the history of music and society at large.”

With Laurie Anderson (1947 – ) as narrator, the video examines the evolution of electronic music: how new devices opened music to the entire field of sound, how electronic music not only changed the modes of production but the very terms of musical thought.

There is little point in discussing the details of this documentary further, without the reader/ listener/ viewer having an opportunity to hear and see it. Thus, readers are encouraged to find the video, enjoy it and reflect on it.

Assignment #1 (revisited)

Collective noun suggestions for synths, include 1) general terms for musical groups: band, choir, combo, ensemble, orchestra; 2) quantity related: duo, trio, quartets, quintets, sextets, septets, octets; 3) computer related: cluster, network.

Interested readers may also want to read av article in the Guardian about the video.

This post was originally scheduled to be published 2021-08-07 at 12:00, but was postponed until 2022-02-26 at 12:00 to allow for further reflection.

Delia Derbyshire (1937-2001)

Delia Derbyshire at work at the BBC in the 1960s. Some of this involved arranging (if not composing) music for Doctor Who. (Photo: BBC)

The publication date of this weblog post marks the twentieth anniversary of the death of Coventry born, bred and blitzed, Delia Ann Derbyshire (1937-05-05 – 2001-07-03) is most famously remembered as the arranger of the theme and incidental music for Doctor Who, based on a score by Ron Grainer (1922 – 1981), while working for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). Of course, she should have been recognized as a co-composer, at the very least.

The most important source for information about Delia Derbyshire is Breege Brannen’s Thesis in Computer Music at the University of Dublin, submitted in 2008. Reading about her life leads to a greater understanding of how women have been suppressed, right up to the current day.

To appreciate her work, one of the most important documents is a video showing how she created works.

Pauline Oliveros: A tidbit

Pauline Oliveros in the studio at the San Francisco Tape Music Center, in 1966, at a Buchia-100 series modular synthesizer. Photo: David Bernstein, from Mills College Center for Contemporary Music archive.

(American, 1932-05-30 – 2016-11-24 )

One track: The difference between hearing and listening.

One quotation: Deep listening is a term invented by Oliveros. It involves “an aesthetic based upon principles of improvisation, electronic music, ritual, teaching and meditation. This aesthetic is designed to inspire both trained and untrained performers to practice the art of listening and responding to environmental conditions in solo and ensemble situations”. She presented some of her ideas on the difference between hearing and listening at a Ted Talk in Indianapolis, 2015-11-12.

One Comment: Pauline Oliveros became world-famous in Port Townsend, Washington, because of her 1988 descent into the Dan Harpole underground cistern and the resulting recording. Deep listening is more than a pun. It incorporates principles of improvisation, electronic music, ritual, teaching and meditation. It inspires everyone to listen to the environment.

Yet Another Comment: In 1966, Pauline Oliveros had been working with tape delay techniques in the San Francisco area, where she lived. That summer, she went to Toronto to study circuit-making with Hugh Le Caine for two months, and while working there she suddenly found that she had access to some of the most innovative and sophisticated electronic sound processing and recording equipment available anywhere. That summer she completed ten tape compositions and six ultrasonic tape studies.

Hugh Le Caine (1914 – 1977)

Hugh Le Caine, with his analogue synthesizer, the Electronic Sackbut.

Hugh Le Caine (1914-05-27 – 1977-07-03) was a Canadian physicist, composer, inventor and instrument builder. This weblog post asserts his claim as an inventor of the synthesizer, the Sackbut, in 1945.

Before continuing, there are two predecessors who do not quite meet the bar in terms of inventing the synthesizer. Thadius Cahill (1867 – 1934) is credited by Thom Holmes in Electronic and experimental music: pioneers in technology and composition (2002) p. 42 – 49, with inventing the term synthesizer in 1896. He did not build or design one. Instead, he constructed three telharmoniums, the first electromechanical musical instruments. These were essentially electric organs, operated by an organist/ performer sitting at a keyboard with 153 keys. The Mark I weighed 7 tonnes = megagrams (Mg), to be politically correct. The Mark II and Mark III each weighed 210 Mg. Invented and patented in 1896, before the advent of vacuum tubes, these used tone wheels and additive synthesis to generate musical sounds as electrical signals. These signals were amplified by dynamos before being sent to horn speakers. Cahill used the term synthesizer to describe these dynamos. When operating, a telharmonium consumed 671 kW of power.

The second, non-inventor of a synthesizer is Homer Dudley (1896 – 1980) who in 1939, working at Bell Labs, invented the Vocoder (a portmanteau of voice and encoder), a method/ machine that electronically reproduced speech, so that it could be transmitted over distances through telephone lines, providing greater clarity, but compressed to use less transmission bandwidth. Key features included envelope control and amplification using voltage control components.

Unfortunately, there are a pair of inventors who do have a prior claim to what some experts consider the first true synthesizer, that appeared at the end of the 1920s. French Edouard E. Coupleaux (or Coupleux) and Joseph A. Givelet demonstrated an Automatically Operating Musical Instrument of the Electric Oscillation Type at the 1929 Paris Exposition. It used four vacuum-tube oscillators to control pitch, then from that output varied the amplitude and introduced further filtering to vary its timbre. The instrument incorporated a paper-tape reader with a pneumatic tracker bar like a player piano. Holes punched in specific rows of the tape varied the instrument’s parameters, allowing the sequencing and articulation of predetermined notes and audio control.

Coupleaux and Givelet built and installed organs that generated sound from hundreds of vacuum tubes in French churches (and radio stations) during the 1930s. Yet, their synthesizer disappeared. One wonders if the potential offered by their 1929 musical instrument, was in some way beyond their comprehension. Personally, I think not. It was undoubtedly, the dismal economic outlook of the 1930s that forced them to concentrate on the most profitable options available.

Hugh Le Caine was a physicist who, after helping develop early radar systems during World War II. When the war ended, he turned his attention to electronic music devices. Le Caine invented an early voltage-controlled synthesizer nearly 20 years before Robert Moog and Donald Buchla. As an academic his work was published in engineering journals. In 1954 he was working at Canada’s National Research Center on inventing and developing electronic music technology. His technology equipped electronic music studios at the University of Toronto (from 1959), the Centre for Electronic Music in Jerusalem (in 1962) and McGill University in Montreal (from 1964).

One criticism of Le Caine was that his inventions were always in a state of flux. There was no cut-of date, at which a particular design was fixed, so that it could be built as a production model. Instead, there was always just another adjustment that needed to be made.

Electronic Sackbut (1945–73)

Le Caine began working on the Electronic Sackbut synthesizer in 1945. As this was a time when major advances were being made in electronics, the Sackbut continuously improved until it was completed in 1971. It was monophonic, but conceived with enough synthesizing flexibility to serve as the starting point of musical thinking. When it was finally launched commercially, it met with little success, because other synthesizers were much more visible.

The Sackbut used voltage control to trigger and modify sounds, a keyboard – with spring-mounted/ pressure sensitive keys, for pitch control, Sideways movement of a key resulted in a gliding of toward the next higher or lower key. Waveform and timbre could be modified using a touch-sensitive pad for the left hand with individual finger controllers. Minimal dexterity was needed to control the instrument. The thumb had two pads. One controlled the overtone balance in a note, while the other controlled frequency. The index finger rested on a movable circular pad. Pressing it changed the waveform and timbre of the sound. Touch-sensitive controls for other sound parameters. The other three fingers each had their own pressure pad that could modify the periodicity of the waveform.

Touch-Sensitive Organ (1952–57)

Le Caine recognized the advantage of a pressure-sensitive keyboard for an electronic organ, and invented a keyboard whose output volume varied in proportion to key pressure. This technology was made into a prototype, and patented. The patent was acquired by the Baldwin Organ Company in 1955. A mass-produced commercial model neve apperared. The touch-sensitive organ was used as an audio source for Le Caine’s tape compositions, such as Ninety-Nine Generators (1957).

“Multi-Track” or Special Purpose Tape Recorder (1955–67)

This was a tape recorder capable of recording and mixing multiple individual tracks. It did not record sound using multiple tape heads on a single reel of tape but synchronized playback on six individual tape reels. The resulting sound was mixed down into asingle track. Each of the six tapes was fitted with variable speed controller, a touch-sensitive, 36-key keyboard. Many composers were especially enthusiastic about this, because it provided control over speed transposition, unavailable using other technologies. Its effectiveness was demonstrated on Dripsody (1955), the sound of dripping water transposed to different speeds. The device was refined over the years, ending with a compact, solid-state version in 1967.

Oscillator Banks (1959–61) and Spectrogram (1959)

Le Caine built several versions of a device for controlling and experimenting with multiple audio oscillators. A touch-sensitive key triggered the individual oscillators, that could play sine, pulse and sawtooth waves. Versions were built with 12, 16, 24 and 108 oscillators. The oscillator bank could be programmed using an optical reader, the Spectrogram. It allowed graphical input of program instructions using a paper roll scanned by an array of 100 photocells.

Serial Sound Generator (1966–70)

Regarded as the forerunner of analogue sequencers, this device used hardwired switches to program a series of tones and effects. It was an analogue computer for programming musical sequences, giving the composer control over pitch, duration, timbre and sound repetition. It used a voltage-controlled oscillator as its sound source.

Sonde (1968)

The Sonde was designed to control multiple sine wave generators. The 200 signals were controlled by 200 slide controls. Transistor circuits reduced space requirements. Despite this, the Sonde was about 1 200 mm high and 600 mm wide

Polyphone Synthesizer (1970)

While the rest of the world was enthralled with Moog monophonic synths, Le Caine ventured into powerful polyphonic, analogue synthesizers. This voltage-controlled instrument was built for the McGill University Electronic Music Studio. Once again, the Polyphone had touch-sensitive keys and individual pitch and waveform controls for each key. There were 37 keys, each with their own dedicated oscillator.

Hugh Le Caine retired from the National Research Council, in 1974. During his career, he had produced 15 electronic instruments, and composed a number of electronic music studies. His retirement did not last long. His other interest, motorcycles driven at high speeds, claimed him as an accident victim in 1976. He died of injuries suffered, in 1977 in Ottawa, Ontario.

For additional information about Hugh Le Caine one can read Wikipedia, or visit the Le Caine website.