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Strange Synths

Little Heard Sounds from Unique Synthesizers


My Book/eBook: Electronic and Experimental Music, sixth edition, Routledge 2020.

My Podcast: The Holmes Archive of Electronic Music



What is a synthesizer? By my own definition, found in my book, a synthesizer is basically an electronic musical instrument containing several integrated components to create, modify, amplify, and play sounds.


Going through my record archives I have noticed many recordings made with unique or limited quantity synthesizers. They range from the handmade synthesizers made by David Behrman for his early microcomputer music to university-based systems such as the Sampson Box (by Peter Samson, ‘Systems Concepts Digital Synthesizer’ at the Center for Computer Research in Musical and Acoustics (CCRMA) at Stanford University and Sal-Mar Construction at the University of Illinois made by professor Salvatore Martirano. Others are seldom-heard synths made by commercial companies that found it difficult to compete against the Moogs, ARPs, Korgs, Rolands, Oberheims, and Sequential Circuits models. Synths made by Serge, EML Electro-comp and E-mu (or Eµ). In this episode, we listened to recordings made using these seldom-heard synthesizer gems. Many styles of music were represented—we make no judgments here, it’s all wonderful to hear—and you heard for yourselves how musicians with great inventiveness put these great gadgets to work in their styles of music from disco to jazz. These recordings all originated with equipment created during the 1970s with one exception, the seldom-heard sound of the AlphaSyntauri, a moment in personal computer history when the Apple II+ computer was married with a synthesizer sound board and keyboard.


Here is a rundown of the tracks we heard.


We began with a track from David Behrman, “Pools Of Phase Locked Loops,” from the album My Dear Siegfried in 2005. This piece is not from 2005, however. The recording dates from 1972 when David was experimenting with homemade synthesizers in performance. At a time when commercial models of analog synths were widely available, Behrman and other musicians such as Gordon Mumma and David Tudor insisted on creating purpose-built instruments. Behrman explains, “The homemade synthesizers had 32 voltage-controlled triangle-wave generators built around a chip utilizing a circuit design called the Phase Locked Loop. The chip made smooth glides possible from one pitch to another. The homemade synthesizers also had voltage-controlled amplifiers, rows of small knobs and frequency counters with the aid of which the performers could retune individual oscillators during a performance.” David Behrman and Katharine Morton Austin are featured on this recorded made at Radio Bremen in Germany.


The next track was by John Ridges and is “Fugue In G” (Bach) from Computer Controlled Synthesizer Performances, an album from 1977. This work was made using a computer-controlled music synthesizer which its makers dubbed Mesmerelda. It was comprised on 200 integrated circuits that could create 96 different pitches assigned to six separate channels. Only one waveform was used, a square wave, and there was no envelope control. Hence, the simple organ-like tone of the piece.


From the same album came “Ruffles” performed by composer John Ridges. This track featured a slightly more advanced computer music synthesizer they called the AD8. It featured up to eight synthesis boards each one relating to a single channel. So, eight pitches could be played at a time and there was filtering, waveform generation other than square waves, and simple envelope generation to provide a slightly more advanced sound. As Ridges wrote in the liner notes, with pride, “these pieces are generally free of the bizarre noises usually found on electronic synthesizer albums.” The pieces were recorded in real time without overdubs.


Then we listened to a track by Patrick Gleeson from his album Patrick Gleeson's Star Wars. I’m going to play “Star Wars Theme (Luke’s Theme)” which was recorded and mixed at Different Fur, San Francisco, in July 1977. The piece showcases various beds, rhythms, and sounds made using the E-mu modular synthesizer. "Selections from the film performed on the world's most advanced synthesizer" is what the liner notes say. This was engineered, produced, arranged, and conducted by Patrick Gleeson. Gleeson was at the helm of Different Fur in San Francisco, which was an alternative to the L.A. sound and Moog influence of Beaver and Krause. At Different Fur, Gleeson experimented with many synthesizers, including the Moog (he was featured on Crossings by Herbie Hancock in 1972 which was partly recorded at Different Fur) but gradually drifted to alternative systems like the E-mu.


Next we had a track by Bennie Maupin from the album Moonscapes in 1978, Yes, that’s the same Bennie Maupin, woodwind player featured on so many jazz fusion albums. The album was recorded at Different Fur around the same time as Patrick Gleeson’s Star Wars. Guess what synthesizer they used? Correct, the E-mu modular, programmed by Gleeson. But this is not at all like the Star Wars album and shows some versatility for the mighty E-mu. The synth is used on many tracks but so are many other synths so it is quite difficult to attribute the sounds to the E-mu. So I picked a short, mostly solo track called “Crystals” which features Maupin playing the synthesizer and woodwinds.


The artist Sylvester was after a Giorgio Moroder-like sound on his disco album called Step II. He found a very good imitation of it in the EML or Electronic Music Laboratories, Modular Synthesizers, more commonly known as the Electro-comp modular synthesizers. The track is “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” from Step II in 1978. One of the few albums to feature the Electro-comp 101 synthesizer and 200 expander unit, plus an Oberheim DS-2 Sequencer, all played by Pat Cowley. Sylvester was the producer, played piano and provided lead vocals. EML was a Connecticut-based synth maker that was around from about 1970 to 1984. They were best-known for their Electro-comp modular synths. The 101 was a duophonic semi-modular 44-note synth and the model 200 was an expander unit that added ring modulation, spring reverb, and high and low filters to the setup. It was interesting to hear this Moroder-like pulsating synth sound coming from something other than a Moog.


Then we turne to three tracks from Pere Ubu and the album Dub Housing in 1978. We will hear “I Will Wait,” “Navvy” and “On the Surface.” One of the remarkable aspects of this group was that they relied on synthesist Allen Ravenstine to create electronically fills and hooks to flesh-out and punctuate the songs, all blended and mixed to provide many weird hooks and twists. This is another example of the EML, Electro-comp duophonic modular synthesizer although almost used in a polar opposite way than Sylvester. Nothing else was really like this in rock music at the time. This album was their second and record in Ohio. I used to get letters from the gang thanking me for writing about their music as the time. Ravenstine is still active and an electronic musician although he has left the EML for other synthesizer frontiers. He remains very much the experimental improviser.


From 1980, an album from Pascal Languirand featured the unusual and much sort after Farfisa Synthorchestra. This was the famous Italian company’s entry into the string synthesizer fray. The Syntorchestra was split into two keyboard sections, a polyphonic strings section and a mono synth voice. It was a hybrid organ and synthesizer and was used much by Klaus Schulze and other German electronic musicians for the short time that it was available from 1975 to 1978. Nine slider controls were positioned next to a 3-octave keyboard and provided some “chaotic” control episodes for this much beloved and rare keyboard.


Then heard two tracks by the progressive rock trio, Moebius, both released in 1979: “Clone Zone” and “Song For Lya.” Yes, this is a progressive rock group that utilized the modular synthesizers known by the Serge. They were developed by Serge Tcherepnin at CalArts in late 1972. By the mid-1970a, Tcherepnin left CalArts and began to manufacture his instruments in Hollywood. Serge modules were designed to bring many odd elements of the circuits to the control of the performer, patching them in unusual ways beyond what was considered normal for a given module. The model used on this album probably had a 16-stage sequencer introduced by the company around that time, and I think you can hear such patterns in this song. Listen for the bubbling, sequenced sounds that are contrasted to the monophonic solos of the Minimoog and patch sounds of the ARP Odyssey. I think that “Clone Zone” opens with the Serge pattern.


Moebius, “Song For Lya,” from Moebius (1979 Plastic Poison). Serge, Oberheim, and Minimoog synthesizers, vocals, written by, Bryce Robbley; Serge, Oberheim synthesizers, written by, Doug Lynner; Violin, John Stubbs. Listen closely to tune-out the parts by the Odyssey and Minimoog and you will experience a lovely bed laid down by the Serge. Moebius had three members, one a violinist, heard on the next track “Song For Lya. ” The interplay of the violin with the Serge is pretty interesting. Although the group used a Sennheiser vocoder on another track, the vocal distortion on this track may have actually been a voice processed with the Serge.


The next track was by Henry Kucharzyk and is called “Play Dot Sam” from an album called Walk The Line in 1985. This work is performed by the Samson Box at the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA), Stanford University, Palo Alto, California. The Samson Box was a computer-based digital synthesizer created for student use at the university. Samson stands for the “Systems Concepts Digital Synthesizer.” It was a one-off, special-purpose digital synthesizer. This track is an escapee from the 1970s, the Samson Box having been created in 1977 by Peter Samson. It represented an early stage of digital synthesis when commercial synthesizers were moving to digital technology but remained quite expensive.


Another one-of-a-kind synthesizer was the The SalMar Construction created by composer Salvatore Martirano between 1969 and 1972 at the University of Illinois. This analog synthesizer was designed for real-time performance and improvisation. It looked like a large drawing table with an array of 291 touch-sensitive connections to enable the sound generating circuits. Behind it all were some computer circuits salvaged from the Illiac II computer music system and they generated random sequences with which the performer could interact while managing four parallel processes governing the 16 oscillators, applying pitch, timbre, amplitude, and envelope parameters to the sound. Martirano toured the world with the performing/composing music machine and described his live performances in the following manner: “The composer, in performance, interacts with the machine as it composes, creating spontaneously four melodic lines which move throughout the concert space via a network of 24 overhead speakers.” This performance was by Martirano while in Paris at IRCAM in 1983.


We finished with the Herbie Hancock track called “Rough” from Future Shock in 1983. Hancock was well known as an experimenter of new synthesizer technology. During the early stages of the home computer revolution, Hancock used an AlphaSyntauri synthesizer as part of his ensemble of instruments. The AlphaSyntauri was an add-in synth for the Apple II computer, with its own sound-generating circuit board. The company was around from about 1980 to 1985. Its claim to fame what that it was much more affordable than the digital synthesizers made by New England Digital and Fairlight, each of which cost in the $30,000 to $50,000 range. The AlphaSyntauri was $1,500. At this price you got 16-voice polyphony, 16 digital oscillators, an envelope generator, keyboard, and a sequencer capable of storing up to 7,000 notes. It’s affordable sequencing was a major attraction. This was before the Apple Macintosh was introduced, and with that event in 1984 the AlphaSyntauri was immediately made obsolete. But not before Hancock was able to work it into some of his electronic jazz tracks. You must listen carefully to pick-out the sounds of the AlphaSyntauri because of all of the other synths and instruments on this track. I’m thinking the beeping, marimba-like sound patterns heard at the beginning and end of the track are most likely the AlphaSyntauri.


Episode 78

The Unusual Synths Episode


Playlist

1. David Behrman, “Pools Of Phase Locked Loops,” from My Dear Siegfried (2005 XI Records). Synthesizers (homemade), David Behrman, Katharine Morton Austin. Recorded live at Radio Bremen in May 1972 and commissioned by Hans Otte. At a time when commercial models of analog synths were widely available, Behrman and other musicians such as Gordon Mumma and David Tudor insisted on creating purpose-built instruments using the same principles. Behrman explains, “The homemade synthesizers had 32 voltage-controlled triangle-wave generators built around a chip utilizing a circuit design called the Phase Locked Loop. The chip made smooth glides possible from one pitch to another. The homemade synthesizers also had voltage-controlled amplifiers, rows of small knobs and frequency counters with the aid of which the performers could retune individual oscillators during a performance.” 14:00


2. John Ridges, “Fugue In G” (Bach) from Computer Controlled Synthesizer Performances (1977 Tesseract Records). This work was made using a computer-controlled music synthesizer which its makers dubbed Mesmerelda. It was comprised on 200 integrated circuits that could create 96 different pitches assigned to six separate channels. Only one waveform was used, a square wave, and there was no envelope control. Hence, the simple organ-like tone of the piece. 4:49


3. John Ridges, “Ruffles” (Ridges) from Computer Controlled Synthesizer Performances (1977 Tesseract Records). From the same album comes “Ruffles” performed by composer John Ridges. This track featured a slightly more advanced computer music synthesizer they called the AD8. It featured up to eight synthesis boards each one relating to a single channel. So, eight pitches could be played at a time and there was filtering, waveform generation other than square waves, and simple envelope generation to provide a slightly more advanced sound. As Ridges wrote in the liner notes, with pride, “these pieces are generally free of the bizarre noises usually found on electronic synthesizer albums.” The pieces were recorded in real time without overdubs. 2:36


4. Patrick Gleeson, “Star Wars Theme (Luke’s Theme)” (Williams). (1977 Mercury). Recorded and mixed at Different Fur, San Francisco, July 1977. The piece showcases various beds, rhythms, and sounds made using the E-mu modular synthesizer, also known as an Eµ synthesizer (it’s original name). "Selections from the film performed on the world's most advanced synthesizer." Drums, Billy Cobham, Harvey Mason, James Levi, Ronnie Beck; Lyricon, Lenny Picket; Vocals, Sarah Baker; keyboards, performer (Breath Controller), engineered, produced, arranged, and conducted by Patrick Gleeson. 5:36


5. Bennie Maupin, “Crystals” from Moonscapes (1978 Mercury). Eµ synthesizer (E-mu Modular Synthesizer) programmed by Patrick Gleeson, who owned Different Fur Studios in the San Francisco area and owned an Eµ modular synthesizer (see the earlier Star Wars album which also featured this same synth.) Here, we have a different treatment of the same instrument by jazz woodwind player Maupin, who played Soprano Saxophone, Tenor Saxophone, Bass Clarinet, Flute, Marimba, Glockenspiel, Eµ Synthesizer, and Computone Synthesizer Winddriver on this album. I picked this track because this is most stripped-down arrangement featuring only Maupin playing the Eµ synthesizer and other instruments. 1:19


6. Sylvester, “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” from Step II (1978 Fantasy). One of the few albums to feature EML (Electronic Music Laboratories) Modular Synthesizers. String synthesizer, Electro-comp 101 synthesizer and 200 expander unit, Oberheim DS-2 Sequencer, Effects , Pat Cowley; organ, Electric piano, Clavinet, Michael C. Finden; Percussion, David Frazier; Producer, Lead Vocals, Piano, Sylvester. EML was a Connecticut-based synth maker that was around from about 1970 to 1984. They were best-known for their Electro-comp modular synths. The 101 was a duophonic semi-modular 44-note synth and the model 200 was an expander unit that added ring modulation, spring reverb, and high and low filters to the setup. It was interesting to hear this Moroder-like pulsating synth sound coming from something other than a Moog. 6:34


7. Pere Ubu, “I Will Wait” from Dub Housing (1978 Chrysalis). This second album from this Ohio group always figured high on my playlist of favorites. I was mostly fascinated by the synthesizer fills and hijinks by Allen Ravenstine that punctuated much of the group’s music with the quirkiest of sounds, all blended and mixed to provide many weird hooks and twists. This is another example of the EML, Electro-comp duphonic modular synthesizer although almost used in a polar opposite way than Sylvester. This is a unique sound from the time. Performers, Allen Ravenstine, David Thomas, Scott Krauss, Tom Herman, Tony Maimone. Engineered by Ken Hamann at SUMA Studios, Painesville, Ohio, 8-9/78. Ravenstine is still active and an electronic musician although he has left the EML for other synthesizer frontiers. He remains very much the experimental improviser. 1:45


8. Pere Ubu, “Navvy” from Dub Housing (1978 Chrysalis). Performers, Allen Ravenstine, David Thomas, Scott Krauss, Tom Herman, Tony Maimone. Engineered by Ken Hamann at SUMA Studios, Painesville, Ohio, 8-9/78. Features sounds of the EML Electro-comp modular synthesizer by Allen Ravenstine. 2:40


9. Pere Ubu, “On the Surface” from Dub Housing (1978 Chrysalis). Performers, Allen Ravenstine, David Thomas, Scott Krauss, Tom Herman, Tony Maimone. Engineered by Ken Hamann at SUMA Studios, Painesville, Ohio, 8-9/78. Features sounds of the EML Electro-comp modular synthesizer by Allen Ravenstine. 2:37


10.Pascal Languirand, “O Nos Omnes” from De Harmonia Universalia (1980 Polydor). I am featuring a track that uses, among other instruments, the Farfisa Synthorchestra, the famous Italian’s company entry into the string synthesizer fray. The Syntorchestra was split into two keyboard sections, strings (polyphonic), and mono synth voices. It was a hybrid organ and synthesizer and used much by Klaus Schulze and other German electronic musicians for the short time that it was available from 1975 to 1978. Nine slider controls were positioned next to a 3-octave keyboard and provided some “chaotic” control episodes for this much beloved and rare keyboard. 7:16


11.Moebius, “Clone Zone” from Moebius (1979 Plastic Poison). Yes, a progressive rock group that utilized the modular synthesizers developed by Serge Tcherepnin, Rich Gold, and Randy Cohen at CalArts in late 1972. By the mid-1970a, Tcherepnin left CalArts and began to manufacture his instruments in Hollywood. Serge modules were designed to bring many elements of the circuits controllable by the performer, patching them in unusual ways beyond what was considered normal for a given module. The model used on this album probably had a 16-stage sequencer introduced by the company, and I think you can hear such patterns in this song. Listen for the bubbling, sequenced sounds that are contrasted to the monophonic solos of the Minimoog and patch sounds of the ARP Odyssey. I think the track opens with the Serge pattern. Drums, Evan Kaplan; Minimoog synthesizer, Bruce Courtois; Roland Sh3a, AP 2600 synthesizers, Steve Roach; Serge modular, Minimoog synthesizer, vocals, written by, Bryce Robbley; Serge modular synthesizer, Doug Lynner. 4:55


12.Moebius, “Song For Lya,” from Moebius (1979 Plastic Poison). Serge, Oberheim, and Minimoog synthesizers, vocals, written by, Bryce Robbley; Serge, Oberheim synthesizers, written by, Doug Lynner; Violin, John Stubbs. Listen closely to tune-out the parts by the Odyssey and Minimoog and you will experience a lovely bed laid down by the Serge. Moebius had three members, one a violinist, heard in this tune blending with the Serge. Although the group used a Sennheiser vocoder on another track, the vocal distortion on this track may have actually been the voice processed with the Serge. 3:15


13.Henry Kucharzyk, “Play Dot Sam” from Walk The Line - Three New Works By Henry Kucharzyk (1985 Artifact Music). This work is performed at the Samson Box at the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA), Stanford University, Palo Alto, California. This track is an escapee from the 1970s but nonetheless fills a void in that period when commercial synthesizers were moving to digital technology and were quite expensive. The Samson Box was a computer-based digital synthesizer created in 1977 by Peter Samson, who worked at the university. Samson stands for the “Systems Concepts Digital Synthesizer. It was a one-off special-purpose dedicated audio computer designed for use by student composers at Center for Computer Research in Musical and Acoustics (CCRMA) at Stanford University. 3:06


14.Salvatore Martirano, “The SalMar: Part One” from The SalMar Construction (2014 Sub Rosa). Another escapee from the 1970s was this performance at IRCAM in Paris in 1983. Salvatore Martirano, an American composer, invented the one-of-a-kind Sal-Mar Construction designed for real-time performance of electronic music. It was created from 1969 to 1972 at the University of Illinois. The analog synthesizer looked like a large drawing table with an array of 291 touch-sensitive connections to enable the sound generating circuits. Behind it all were some computer circuits salvaged from the Illiac II computer music system and they generated random sequences with which the performer could interact while managing four parallel processes governing the 16 oscillators, applying pitch, timbre, amplitude and envelope parameters to the sound. Martirano toured the world with the performing/composing music machine and described his live performances in the following manner: “The composer, in performance, interacts with the machine as it composes, creating spontaneously four melodic lines which move throughout the concert space via a network of 24 overhead speakers.” This performance was by Martirano while in Paris at IRCAM. 18:59


15.Herbie Hancock, “Rough” from Future Shock (1983 Columbia). Hancock was well known as an experimenter of new synthesizer technology. During the early stages of the home computer revolution, Hancock used an AlphaSyntauri synthesizer as part of his ensemble of instruments. The AlphaSyntauri was an add-in synth for the Apple II computer, with its own sound-generating circuit board. The company was around from about 1980 to 1985. Its claim to fame what that it was much more affordable than the digital synthesizers made by New England Digital and Fairlight, each of which cost in the $30,000 to $50,000 range. The AlphaSyntauri was $1500. At this price you got 16-voice polyphony, 16 digital oscillators, and envelope generator, keyboard, and a sequencer capable of storing up to 7000 notes. It’s affordable sequencing was a major attraction. This was before the Apple Macintosh was introduced, and with that the AlphaSyntauri was made immediately obsolete. But not before Hancock was able to work it into some of his electronic jazz tracks. If you listen carefully you can pick-out the sounds of the AlphaSyntauri because of all of the other synths and instruments on this track. Backing Vocals, Bernard Fowler, Grandmixer D.ST., Nicky Skopelitis, Roger Trilling; Bass, Bill Laswell; Drums, Sly Dunbar; Lead Vocals, Lamar Wright; Fairlight CMI Synthesizer, AlphaSyntauri Synthesizer, Emulator Synthesizer, Herbie Hancock; Prophet-5 Synthesizer, Michael Beinhorn; Turntables, Voice, Grandmixer D.ST. 6:55


Opening background music: P.F.M. (Premiata Forneria Marconi), “Storia In "LA"” from Jet Lag (1977 Asylum Records). Italian progressive rock band founded in 1970. Album recorded at Kendun Recorders, Burbank, California, January, 1977 and Scorpio Sound Studio, London, February, 1977. Mixed at Scorpio Sound Studio, February 1977. Mastered at RCA Studio, London. Bass, Moog B12 Synthesizer, Patrick Djivas; Drums, Percussion, Franz Di Cioccio; Electric Piano, Organ, Moog Synthesizer, Flavio Premoli. 6:28


Opening and closing sequences voiced by Anne Benkovitz.

Additional opening, closing, and other incidental music by Thom Holmes.

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NOISE AND NOTATIONS

Electronic and Experimental Music

Notes on the development and continuing history of electronic music, its creators, and the technology.