This article was inspired by one of our readers’ comments. Dee suggested I check out Charanjit Singh who used a TB-303 before acid house was even invented.
I’d never heard of Singh, but the discovery was an instant favourite.
That week I was also in the middle of choosing a MIDI controller, so all these things got me thinking…
How does a piece of gear get into a particular musician’s hands? And what kind of relationship do they develop with it?
Here is the story of 10 synth wizards (including Dee’s suggestion!) and the machines that shaped their sound.
1. Wendy Carlos – Moog Modular
Now 76 years old, Wendy Carlos is a pioneer every electronic musician is indebted to.
Carlos studied at the first center for electronic music in the United States, the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center. After graduation, she met Robert ‘Bob’ Moog and helped him refine his early synths. Her instrument of choice became the Moog modular synth.
“I got the Moog and worked with Bob to make a prototype of a touch-sensitive keyboard. Can you believe, the standard keyboard was not touch-sensitive until the late 1970s!? So, now I had a keyboard that could make the notes come alive” said Wendy Carlos
“I got the Moog and worked with Bob to make a prototype of a touch-sensitive keyboard… now I had a keyboard that could make the notes come alive.” Wendy Carlos
It was her iconic album Switched on Bach (1968) that brought synthesizers to the public consciousness. At a time when synths were still unknown to most people, Carlos recorded Bach’s famous Brandenburg Concertos with this new synthesized sound.
“I was certainly not about any revival of Bach. It was just lovely music, eminently suited for this stage of the development of Bob Moog’s new synthesizer” explained Wendy Carlos.
Switched on Bach was the first album that allowed a large public to wrap their heads around this new machine – the synthesizer. It paved the way for later experimentation beyond classical music.
Carlos is also the composer behind some of cinema’s greatest soundtracks, including Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971) and The Shining (1980).
2. Eliane Radigue – ARP 2500
Éliane Radigue is a French electroacoustic composer who studied under eminent musique concrète composers Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry in the 1950s. During a visit to New York city in the 1960s, she met the avant-garde scene of the time including John Cage, Philip Glass and Steve Reich. Her own style moved away from the concrète tradition and into experiments with tape loops, microphone feedback and slowly evolving modulations.
“In Radigue’s work, sounds interact with each other like the cells of an organism, progressing in glissando in an extremely slow and subtle way,” writes Julien Bécourt.
In the 1970s she returned to New York and shared a studio with Laurie Spiegel. There, she began experimenting with various synthesizers like the Buchla and the EML Electro comp. But her perfect match was the ARP 2500…
“In Radigue’s work, sounds interact with each other like the cells of an organism, progressing in glissando in an extremely slow and subtle way.” Julien Bécourt
“ … the ARP offered me an immediate reading, since the oscillators … were all in front of me. Except that the switches had one flaw: they hissed. But, for me, that is precisely what procured this richness and subtlety of sound. The Moog and Buchla are wonderful instruments, but conversely, their sonority is very clear and metallic” described Éliane Radigue.
Radigue eventually discovered and adopted Tibetan Buddhism as a personal philosophy. It became a guiding principle in her work, such as her best-known work Trilogie de la Mort (1988-1993). Her last electronic work was L’île Re-sonante (2000) before she shifted to acoustic instruments in the recent decades.
3. Klaus Schulze – EMS Synthi A
Schulze adopted synths early on in the 1970s. He was one of the first members of Tangerine Dream and of the cosmic rock band Ash Ra Tempel. It was his solo career that propelled his electronic experimentation. Under his own name he produced over 40 studio albums. The EMS Synthi A was his first and most loved synth.
“For me [the EMS Synthi A] is an atmosphere creator, no other synthesizer in the world can do this thing,” said Klaus Schulze.
He then added a Big Moog system with sequencers to his toolkit. The list of his gear on his website is astonishing… Today Klaus Schulze has a small studio in a forest in northwestern Germany where he lives with his wife. Over the years he got rid of a lot of gear. But the EMS Synthi A always remains part of his collection.
“For me [the EMS Synthi A] is an atmosphere creator, no other synthesizer in the world can do this thing.” Klaus Schulze
“… the Big Moog has gone, Klaus sold it because he did not use it anymore. Many believe that this is a real pity, because this instrument was so characteristic for his music… For Klaus it was nothing but an instrument, a useful tool” wrote Mr. Modular.
4. Suzanne Ciani – Buchla
Suzanne Ciani’s portfolio is impressive to say the least. The sound effects for the 1980 Xenon pinball machine. The pop and pour in Coca-Cola commercials and even the bleeps in GE’s first musical dishwashers … All sounds by Suzanne. Yamaha DX7 fans will also be happy to know that she programmed the “East Meets West” preset.
“You shouldn’t come to the [Buchla] with a preset idea of what you want to do—you should feedback with the machine and evolve your language with it.” Suzanne Ciani
Her synth weapon of choice for both composition and sound design has always been her Buchla synthesizer. Ciani’s philosophy towards her instrument is to approach the machine on its own terms. “You shouldn’t come to the [Buchla] with a preset idea of what you want to do—you should feedback with the machine and evolve your language with it” explained Suzanne Ciani.
Unlike Moog’s synths, Don Buchla’s modulars didn’t come with a keyboard as a main interface. It was mostly knobs and wires.
“I wanted to develop a technique for [the Buchla] the same way people have a technique for playing the violin… Don Buchla viewed it as a performance instrument, and I believed him. So I wanted to perform it” said Suzanne Ciani.
Ciani took some time off the Buchla and returned to the piano. But the recent re-issue of her previous work (like the Buchla Concerts 1975 album) has rekindled her love with electronics. Suzanne Ciani at Moogfest 2016:
5. Michael Stearns – Serge synthesizer
Michael Stearns might not be a name you recognize instantly, but you’ve certainly heard his music. He made the soundtrack to Ron Fricke’s impressive IMAX movies Chronos, Baraka and Samsara. His approach to music is guided by new age spirituality:
“As individuals, cultures and as a species, music is a carrier for the “stories” that we tell ourselves. Through these “stories”, we continually re-create our lives and the unconscious patterns that have been handed down to us through the generations” wrote Michael Stearns.
Kevin Braheny – a friend of Stearns – was on the early design team for the Serge modular synthesizer. The synth’s creator Serge Tcherepnin wanted to create something like the Buchla modular synths, but much less exclusive and expensive. After Braheny showed Stearns the Serge synth in the 1970s, he quickly adopted it.
“As individuals, cultures and as a species, music is a carrier for the “stories” that we tell ourselves.” Michael Stearns
Stearns went on to record his ambient album Morning Jewel (1979) with the Serge before building his own.
6. Laurie Spiegel – Buchla, Music Mouse
Laurie Spiegel fell in love with analog synthesizers in the late 60s.
“I showed [composer] Michael [Czajkowski] pieces I’d been writing and he said, ‘Here’s something you might find really interesting.’ And he took me down to Morton Subotnick’s studio and showed me the Buchla synthesizer” described Laurie Spiegel.
“Despite commercialization, working with computers in music is still both an end in itself and a means of creating music and expanding human understanding.” Laurie Spiegel
In the 1970s she worked at the Bell Labs developing interactive music composition software for computers. Her and colleague Max Matthews are considered pioneers of computer music. The Bell Labs also gave Spiegel access to experimental machines such as the Alles synth – the first digital additive synthesis machine. Here’s Spiegel masterfully playing the Alles:
In 1985 she coded her best-known software called Music Mouse, an early example of a computer-based instrument. For Spiegel, the computer was a new kind of folk instrument. It was a visionary idea and perhaps a prediction of how computers are used nowadays in bedroom production.
“Despite commercialization, working with computers in music is still both an end in itself and a means of creating music and expanding human understanding. Computer music is still art and science for their own sake and for the pleasures of learning, discovery, expression, and communication” wrote Laurie Spiegel.
6. Charanjit Singh – TB-303
Singh is an Indian composer and session musician who worked on numerous Bollywood soundtracks in the 1970s and 80s. He’s credited for ‘accidentally’ inventing acid house with his album Synthesizing: Ten Ragas to a Disco Beat from 1982. The record blended Indian classical raga with electronic disco. It was a commercial flop in India when it first came out, but became a hit when it was re-issued in 2010.
Singh used three Roland machines to make it: a Jupiter-8 synthesizer, a TR-808, and a TB-303. The 303 was released just one year before Ten Ragas came out. Singh bought one in Singapore and started playing around with it at home. He thought ‘sounds good, why not record it’. The squelchy bassline later defined what we know as acid house – but Singh did it years before it was even a thing!
“[Singh] found a different way to employ the [TB-303], particularly its glissando function which made it suitable for reproducing the Indian raga melodies.” The Wire
“While the TB-303 was originally designed to fill in for a bass guitar, it was awkward when it came to reproducing conventional basslines, so [Singh] found a different way to employ the machine, particularly its glissando function which made it suitable for reproducing the Indian raga melodies.” – The Wire
8. Vangelis – Yamaha CS80
Greek-born composer Vangelis is most known for his soundtrack work on Chariots of fire (1981) and Blade Runner (1982), among many others. In the 1960s and 1970s Vangelis played in several bands, most notably Aphrodite’s Child as a keyboardist:
Vangelis used synthesizers in a style described as “symphonic electronica.” Melodic and simple but memorable progressions with some folk elements. The relationship between Vangelis and his iconic Yamaha CS80 synth is an interesting one:
“ [The CS80 is] the most important synthesizer in my career — and for me the best analogue synthesizer design there has ever been… It’s the only synthesizer I could describe as being a real instrument, mainly because of the keyboard — the way it’s built and what you can do with it” explained Vangelis.
“[The CS80 is] the only synthesizer I could describe as being a real instrument, mainly because of the keyboard — the way it’s built and what you can do with it.” Vangelis
Yamaha’s CS80 is hailed as Japan’s first great synthesizer. It’s a very expressive polyphonic synthesizer with piano-like weighted keys and polyphonic aftertouch. Vangelis used it to develop a distinctive personal style of playing the CS80. By varying the pressure applied to a key, he created a striking vibrato effect:
9. Doris Norton – Roland System 700, Roland System 100M, Minimoog
Italian-born Doris Norton is a true unsung hero of electronic music. She was also a freelance journalist, scriptwriter and later a music consultant for IBM in addition to making incredible music. Norton’s rhythms made with sequencers and drum machines in the early 80s are groundbreaking. She was making techno before techno was even a thing…
“I’ve never started a career. Music is only a journey of mine. Synthesizers, AD converters, sequencers, then computers, and generally all electronics, influenced my soloist voyage” said Doris Norton.
“In the late sixties I had already conceived computers as personal.” Doris Norton
The synths she favoured were two modulars made by Roland: the System 700 and System 100M, as well as the Minimoog. She was also an early proponent of the computer as electronic music instrument. “In the late sixties I had already conceived computers as “personal” described Doris Norton.
Norton’s first releases Under Ground (1980) and Personal Computer (1984) were among Apple’s first music sponsorships – as the logo on the album cover makes clear.
10. Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith – Buchla 100
Born in 1987, Smith started out studying composition and sound engineering at the Berklee College of Music. She started a folk band called Ever Isles. But when a neighbor lent her a Buchla 100 system, she completely abandoned folk music in favour of electronics.
The versatile and unpredictable sounds that the Buchla is capable of resonated with Smith’s love for nature and organic sounds.
“[Don Buchla] was trying to create something that would help you access the part of your brain that separates what you’re used to with a keyboard.” Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith
“At that time, it was mostly [Bob] Moog and Buchla, and Moog was more [geared] towards trying to create a synth that you could easily translate from the piano. Don was the opposite. He was trying to create something that would help you access the part of your brain that separates what you’re used to with a keyboard” explained Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith.
Smith has released several albums, most notably EARS (2016) which features the Buchla and vocals. Suzanne Ciani and Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith collaborated on a Buchla-focused release entitled Sungery. The release came out September 15, 2016 – only a few days before the passing of Don Buchla.
Machine Love Takes Times
What are the common threads between these artists?
They all spent hours and hours with the machines they fell in love with. As Suzanne Ciani put it: “It’s really a matter of time; the more time you spend with the instrument, the deeper you go.”
They also had mentors or communities of like-minded artists around them. Talent and curiosity need a fertile ground to grow on.
Developing your craft as a music creator begins with finding the right tool for you.
Make the possibilities, limitations and flaws of your chosen music tool your signature – whether it’s an elaborate Moog or a computer.