For those who do not know, Don Buchla died on Wednesday September 14, 2016. He is of course one of the simultaneous co-inventors of the modern synthesizer. He was a beloved figure in the modular synth and experimental music community.
Buchla’s synthesizers were the instrument of choice for many women I have personally admired as composers and artists, specifically Suzanne Cianni and Laurie Spiegel. Laurie in fact divulged some of her experiences with Don Buchla and Suzanne Cianni in New York in the early 1970s.
People really do not grasp how often the people who do play modular electronic instruments often know their makers on some level, either personally, or through correspondence. These experiences and interactions often touch people closely who play these instruments. Don knew many musicians in his life because he was an active experimental musician himself, and he developed friendships that lasted a lifetime. He will be deeply missed by his friends and family.
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.
The entry point to modular synthesizers used to be significant. The price points used were high enough that those who could afford the synthesizers was a limited audience. Modular instruments were above all boutique instruments of enthusiasts and DIY builders. Do not get me wrong there is nothing wrong with this, many of these early enthusiasts were composers such as Laurie Spiegel, who used them extensively in her early recordings. For women it was a way to compose and produce music without the institutional barriers of the conservatory.
While the barriers to synthesizers in general fell, modular synthesizers were a different story. In recent years the price barrier have been falling, the introduction of the Eurorack format by Doepfer in 1995 started opening up these instruments to a far broader audience. In the last five years however the format exploded in popularity. The barrier to entry began to lower even more as a result as multiple manufacturers producing modules for the format.
In the last few days, Kilpatrick Audio, a Canadian company, announced the Phenol. While I will try to avoid endorsing products directly without trying them, the value of what they are offering is pretty impressive. It’s $850 retail price point (and I think that’s Canadian dollars) is lower than any comparable device . While the device is not a specific format, it does allow cross compatibility with other modular synths. The added bonus is that it uses banana jacks, which are easily one of the most fun formats because the wires are stackable. The one thing that will never disapear with modulars though is the differences in jack formats. However, unlike the Korg MS-20 mini, the Kilpatrick Phenol synthesizer uses the standard voltages found in modular synthesizers.
The $1000 price barrier is a bit mythical in the realm of musical instruments. It is the real difference between enthusiasts and professionals, and a larger general audience and hobbyists. While I can recommend several synthesizers to people, and I will on this blog, modular synthesizers which are close to my heart, tend to be out of reach to most people. It is hard to spend thousands of dollars on instruments with student loans, kids, and a mortgage. It is hard for teenagers to save up for modular instruments as well. The Phenol on the other hand could provide of an excellent entry point, one that can bring this type music technology into homes and schools. I can only imagine bringing something like the Phenol into a Girl’s Rock or Women’s Rock program.
While I am not going to make a final verdict on the Kilpatrick Phenol until I play it myself, the effort to make a high quality affordable modular instrument is commendable. While I will be reviewing and discussing instruments that are expensive, I am happy to start off this blog focusing on the announcement of a modular instrument that is accessible and more affordable.
When the Kickstarter opens up, I will be posting more about the Phenol.
Kilpatrick Phenol Specs:
Banana patch system with colour-coded jacks and voltages compatible with Kilpatrick Format and other modular systems
Two analog VCOs – triangle, ramp and pulse outputs
Two analog filters (low pass and high pass)
Two analog VCAs with level control
Two envelope generator / LFO combos with many unique features
An LFO with sine and random output
Internal MIDI to CV converter with DIN and USB MIDI interfaces
Compact mixer with digital delay with over 330ms of delay time
Digital pulse divider – divide MIDI clock or LFO output to create 4 musical time divisions
Buffered mixer / mult / inverter with level control
External audio input allows a stereo input to be patched like an oscillator signal – process your drum machine or other source through the system
Designed and made in Canada using high quality parts