Buchla, the man who is known as the co-inventor of control voltage just sued Buchla Electronic Musical Instruments (BEMI). The reasons for it are fairly standard breach of contract. Buchla was owed money, BEMI did not pay. So Buchla wants his company back.
This is not all to uncommon in the world of synthesizers, founders selling their companies, and regaining their names. Names appearing on multiple products. Dave Smith recently regained the rights to Sequential Circuits, and Moog did the same with Big Briar when he was alive. Serge of course is so complicated it would take an entire post to dedicated to that subject.
Buchla though has had a run of bad luck which is borderline legendary. First selling his company to CBS, then re-founding it, closing shop, only to re-open it again, and then later re-selling it recently. Now wanting to once again gain it back because of this breach of contract action.
I think the most likely outcome is this will get settled out of court. But it will just be another chapter in the rocky history of synthesizer companies and founders.
Buchla is expensive. So expensive that people go to great lengths to obtain a full system. Selling a lifetime of gear was not uncommon just for a small system.
With all the hoopla at NAMM over the return of Moog at high price points which were right up there with Buchla. Buchla on the other hand was introducing entry level systems under $3000 was overlooked. While this may be pricey I don’t think this is meant for those new to modular synthesis, but rather an entry point to existing modular enthusiasts, especially those with Eurorack systems. Buchla did something very smart, creating interface modules designed with Eurorack’s minijacks in mind.
How did Buchla bring down the price point? Through the creation of 2U modules under the LEM branding. The same functionality of some of the most popular modules, but without as much duplication. These can be paired along with standard Buchla 200e modules. So one can have a complex oscillator, with the dual low pass gates, and dual envelopes. In fact this is the Snoopy system pictured above. With all this being said, the Snoopy system is a complete voice, a small stand alone synthesizer. So even if one was just getting into modular, they can still do so with this system. The result is bongos, beautiful Buchla bongos. Or if one so chooses, using the interface modules to get some of the more esoteric Buchla functions to work in conjunction with a Eurorack system.
Buchla also introduced their legendary touch keyboard from the music easel as a stand alone controller, again, with providing the optional eurorack outs to the keyboard. But now there is Buchla has made itself available for the masses.
As it stands neither of my modular systems have many resonant filters. In fact I always have a little internal debate in my head in terms of how useful such filters even are for myself.
One of the main gripes of many people have about older FM synthesizers such as the DX7 is the fact there were no resonant filters. For people who play keyboard synthesizers the simple subtractive signal flow of a Moog is often preferred to the algorithmic complexity of a DX7. However, over time the usefulness of frequency modulation has come to light more, and people are now shifting to a different mentality regarding filters.
Those of us who play modulars though are far more foggy regarding resonant filters though. Some people love them and they remain critical to a signal flow. Others, like myself tend to maybe have one around just in case, but do not necessary use them. I use this as a prime example, my Serge/Ian Fritz system only has one resonant filter, the Ian Fritz Teezer.
This is not to say I don’t have filters, they are just modules which can act as non-resonant low pass gates such as the Dual Universal Slope Generator, and the Smooth and Stepped Generator. In addition my custom built panel also has a Buchla style low pass gate. Instead my personal system is heavily reliant on Frequency Modulation, Ring Modulation, Hard Syncs, and Waveshaping to add complexity to generated sounds.
There has been a long discussion over “West Coast” and “East Coast” in the modular world over modular synthesizers. This dates back to Buchla and Moogs original modular systems. Buchla had more waveshaping and frequency modulation, while Moog systems had low pass resonant filters. The lines blurred over time with Serge having both resonant filters, FM, and Waveshaping in his modular systems, as did other makers. Serge though is still largely considered west coast with the multi-function modules such as the Universal Slope Generator. That and the fact he was living in San Francisco at the time of creating his original modules.
The reality is as synthesizers became more keyboard instruments, the Moog style signal flow began to win out, and with it, resonant filters. Q won the day, at least for a time. This however has changed over the years as people began to realize some of the benefits to that west coast signal flow. Vactrols and non-resonant filters began to become a more consistent part of modular synthesizers even outside of Buchla’s systems in recent years. People began to see the benefits of Serge and Buchla’s designs.
This is the thing, in terms of my own music, I cannot really see much of the purpose for resonant filters. I always feel I need more of them, but often realize I rarely use the ones I have and instead fall back on other synthesis methods, especially waveshaping and FM. The best use of the resonant filter often ends up being another oscilator. The reality is I am more comfortable without the Q.
I have written about synthesizers extensively at this point, but I think it is time to bring up electronic music itself. While electronic dance music has exploded in popularity, I think when one approaches electronic instruments they should not feel limited to making such music. The beauty of electronic music is the fact it can be expansive in scope, it has unlimited potential. One can approach synthesis as a way to make music one loves, or to expound the boundaries of what is considered music.
Electronic music has modern classicists like Wendy Carlos and Suzanne Ciani, it also has deep roots in the Avant Garde. In fact much of early Avant Garde music was produced with electronic instruments and techniques. The technological innovation of these instruments was coming out of participants in the avant-garde community. Some of these instruments were solely created by and used by composers, Daphne Oram’s Oramics synthesizer being a prime example. Others, like Don Buchla’s modular synthesizer found a wider commercial market. The intent of both the instrument maker and those playing the instruments was to push the boundaries of music with these new concepts, and to create unique sounds and experiences.
Electronic music works within the bounds of existing and potential technology for sound. This can be as simple as a tape player, or as complex as an artificial intelligence. The reality is there really is no right way to make electronic music, and no wrong way. There may be a right way or wrong way to operate equipment, but that is all. Electronic music does not have to follow the constraints of notes, rhythm, and melody. Musique Concrete, noise, and drone are all legitimate forms of musical expression, in electronic music. As such synthesizers can take on many forms, and the instruments themselves can become as abstract and strange as the music. Music is nothing more than intentionally presented sound, how that music is intentionally presented is only limited by invention and imagination. What the listener gets out of these sounds comes from our pattern matching biases as a species. which is by in large, subjective.
What an electronic musician does is use technology to present that sound of intent. This can be to evoke a response, such as fear or agitation, or to make a person dance by presenting a structured melody and rhythm. While traditional musical knowledge can help in that presentation, so does learning how to use the underlying technology and it’s limits.
My Own Musical Philosophy and Approach
For the past few years I have had an electronic music project myself called PraxisCat, here is a sampling.
I should note, I composed much of this album on a unique modular/semi-modular instrument made for me by Peter Blasser of Ciat-Lonbarde called a Dousk. My interest in modular synthesizers largely stems from having instruments that match both my workflow and philosophy, the dousk is one of the primary instruments I play these days.
My own music is not notational, it is more sculptural, organic, or mechanical. It is laid out in a forest of patch cords, or waves on my computer screen, and the effects I use to refine my sound. The goal is not to even have a clear structure around the music I present. I embrace the more chaotic and unpredictable elements of music to present a mood, feeling, or even a sense of place.
I have a very good understanding of my instruments and how they work and can sound, this is especially true with my synthesizers. I have also been playing musical instruments for years, and took years to develop the music I make now. I have a pure obsession about learning about synthesis and sound design, and have very clear concepts of the type of music I wish to make. While I do take on some aspects of musique concrete, ambient, and radiophonics,but I am not limiting myself to that history, or those constraints. While I bring chaos into my compositions, that does not mean I do not interlace it with melodies, and more rythmic elements to bring a sense of order or beauty.
I am an avant-garde composer and musician, and I compose and perform with musical happenstance, sequences, and noise. The point is to present the beauty in the seemingly random, or just as often, to make weird and interesting music.
The documentary on Suzanne Ciani reached it’s kickstarter fundraising goal. This is great news, Ciani was one of the earliest adopters of modular synthesizers. She is also one of the most prolific synthesists in the film industry ever. In addition to being a composer, her ability to sound design is in fact legendary. She is most associated with her beautiful compositions using an early Buchla modular synthesizer system. Like Laurie Spiegel, she worked closely at one point with Max Matthews.
The one depressing thing that does not get mentioned with the fundraiser, is there were likely more women involved with the music technology and modular synthesizer community back when Ciani started then there are today. The community was much smaller back then, but there were a number of high profile women composing and recording with synthesizers between the 1960s-1980s. There actually seems to be fewer women playing modular synthesizers, even though they are more widely available. While people like a Ciani who laid the groundwork for modern synthesists, in some ways it feels like things have not improved much in terms of women’s involvement.
My hope is this documentary further raises the profile of the early women synthesists, and maybe encourages a few to pick up a patch cord.