Tag Archives: DIY synths

sip5: vactrols and vcf

by Larry Dunn, August 11, 2020

Our focus in week five of Synth in Place, the online course in DIY synthesizers taught by Kirk Pearson of Dogbotic sound labs, in collaboration with Thingamajigs, turned to west coast style synthesizers, and vactrols and VCF (voltage controlled filters), components they use to great effect.

The iconic maker of west coast synthesizers was Don Buchla (1937-2016), whose Buchla Modular Electronic Music System was the first commercial music synthesizer to to hit the market, in 1965. You can’t talk for long about Buchla and his synthesizers without also talking about Morton Subotnick, one of the founders of the San Francisco Tape Music Center, an early and influential laboratory focused on the development of electronic music. Subotnick, and his Tape Music Center colleague Ramon Sender, were close collaborators with Buchla on his first synthesizer, providing the user specifications for a device with a flexible modular configuration to provide endless variation in how the sound produced by oscillators could be manipulated. Subotnick used the Buchla 100 series modular synth to create the first totally electronic music album to be commissioned by a major record label, Silver Apples Of The Moon, in 1967.

In 2013, Arlene and I had the distinct pleasure to hear Morton Subotnick’s live performance of From Silver Apples of the Moon to A Sky of Cloudless Sulphur IV: LUCY, an 80th-birthday-year reprise of sounds from across the broad swath of his extraordinary career. We wrote a piece about that experience for I CARE IF YOU LISTEN, the online journal of contemporary music and related arts and technologies, where we are contributing editors. I’ve dug that piece out of the vault to present here, because I think it perfectly captures the ethereal experience of hearing an expert practitioner spin out a unique sound universe using a west coast synthesizer with an array of input and manipulation devices.

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Morton Subotnick Performs a Sorcerer’s Brew of Music at MOCA Cleveland

Arlene & Larry Dunn on December 4, 2013 at 7:00 am, on I CARE IF YOU LISTEN

Morton Subotnick, a true pioneer of electronic music, celebrated his 80th birthday this year. Yet only his halo of white hair, snowy goatee, and a slight limp gave any sense he was a day over 65 when he mounted the stage to perform From Silver Apples of the Moon to A Sky of Cloudless Sulphur IV: LUCY at Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) Cleveland on Thursday, November 14, 2013. No doubt staying in the avant garde of electronics in music has kept him surrounded by younger people. Perhaps he has continuously re-absorbed youth by osmosis along the way. His performance was both historical, in that it contained many recorded samples of all his previous work since the 1960s, and of-the-moment, as he spontaneously mixed his samples and vocalizations into a sorcerer’s brew via live manipulation and processing.

Morton Subotnick (photo: Larry Dunn)

Looking like a learned shaman, Subotnick seated himself at an elaborate workstation consisting of a Buchla Music Easel (an updated version of the first-ever music synthesizer, which he helped develop in the 60s), microphone, multi-part touchpad interface, laptop, and more. It was all routed through a quadraphonic sound system from the TIMARA (Technology in Music and Related Arts) department of Oberlin Conservatory, which co-sponsored Subotnick’s visit, including a lecture at the conservatory the following day. Four large monitors surrounded the audience, one in each corner of the open ground-floor gallery. After pausing a moment to ready himself, Subotnick launched into a series of wordless vocalizations that were transformed into pure sound and shifted around the room like they were powered by a cyclotron. This set the tone for his hour-long program full of shifting textures, timbres, density, and dynamics. Although there were no definitive stops, it was composed of three distinct sections that seemed to embody new ways of hearing the energy of the universe.

The opening section evoked the scene of some primordial swamp, full of gurgling water, croaking frogs, and buzzing insects, intersecting with wild winds and ghostly beings. Subotnick gradually built the complexity of the texture, adding waves of samples to the mix, creating more layers of sound. As the tempo and dynamics increased, it became difficult to discern the individual elements. One became immersed in its totality, mesmerized by the engulfing sound, only to be jolted awake by a loud blast and then returned to long steady tones eventually fading to near silence.

Morton Subotnick (photo courtesy of Oberlin TIMARA)

Subotnick initiated a new construction in section two as a thin gauzy fabric was punctuated by a persistent low-frequency 1-2 thump. He transported this beat throughout the gallery as this soundscape unfolded. Over this beat were crazy, wild combinations of shrill sounds morphing from disorganized chaos into more parallel structures. It was like being transported into a hidden dimension where we could hear energy darting around the room as light rays and thermal currents caused gas molecules to collide. Subotnick added more materials to the mix, thickening the texture and increasing the intensity, sounding as if we were caught up in the tail of a comet flying high above the earth. The texture gradually scaled back to only two or three lines, with Subotnick’s humming vocalizations bringing a momentarily subdued calm. He then rebuilt the complex texture at a rapid pace, increasing the volume to a crescendo with that thumping bass vibrating the entire room. With that climax exhausted, the sounds slowly dissolved and faded.

The final section inhabited a more human sphere, beginning with the haunting sounds of a disembodied female voice chanting quietly. Subotnick added processed live vocalizing and a steady percussive tapping, soon joined by the orbiting sound of a ball bearing rolling around the outer rim of a hubcap. The human vocal sounds continued to dominate and morph into moans, sighs, and heavy breath sounds as if trying to communicate with the universe on a new channel. It was fascinating to observe how the specific gestures Subotnick made on his touchpad and with his mouth at the microphone gave shape to the sounds that emerged. The texture soon thickened and became more complex as intricate plucking and striking sounds joined the mix. It sounded like some ancient sonic communication system using muted marimba, hammered strings, and kalimba. The textures and dynamics built to another crescendo of enormous beauty, then suddenly dissipated to silence.

After a sustained standing ovation, Subotnick returned to the stage for a short improvised encore with a free-jazz feel. He opened with a rapid riff of processed vocalization that reminded us that he had an early career as a virtuoso clarinetist. His voice receded and electronic samples came to the fore at nearly manic speed, dominated by heavy low frequency thumps. It seemed at once both chaotic and precise, and came to an abrupt halt.

Morton Subotnick (photo: Adam Kissick for NPR)

Following the performance, Subotnick described his workstation set-up to us in a little more detail. His Buchla Music Easel is equipped with only two oscillators, but he multiplies their effects using Ableton software on the laptop. Two ten-button keypads on his left, enable him to select which samples go through which software multiplier. With the multi-part touchpad on his right he manipulates the shape, tempo, and volume of the samples he selects to play. In the program notes, he stated: “For each season of performances I create a new hybrid Ableton-Buchla ‘instrument’ loaded with prepared samples from all my previous works and performances and new patches that will allow me to modify the samples while performing brand new sound gestures created especially for the new season.” He plays from a score, displayed on the laptop, which defines the order of samples to be played but allows ample space for spontaneity in how he manipulates those samples.

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Stay tuned.

sip4: cricket v. space invader

by Larry Dunn, August 6, 2020

In week four of Synth in Place, the online course in DIY synthesizers taught by Kirk Pearson of Dogbotic sound labs, in collaboration with Thingamajigs, we focused on the basic components and technology of commercially produced music synthesizers, and we looked at plans for making two simple synths: one that sound like crickets, and one that can replicate the sounds of 1980s Atari games like Space Invaders.

Our inspiration this week came from Thaddeus Cahill’s prescient 1897 invention, the Telharmonium. This awesome contraption was a synthesizer long before the invention of synthesizers, music amplification before the invention of amplifiers and loudspeakers, a music streaming service long before the internet. Sadly, the Telharmonium was never a commercial success, because it required the nascent telephone network for transmission services. But the demand for telephone service grew so rapidly, that there was no available bandwidth. However, its concepts didn’t disappear completely, as they led directly to development of the Hammond organ. And where would jazz, and rock, and church music be without that?

Breaking down the inner workings of a commercially produced music synthesizer was a revelation for me, as I’d never put much thought to how they work. I’ve just always been content that they make cool sounds. As an introduction, we fist learned that all the commercial synthesizers out there are using the same fundamental technologies and components to synthesize sound, whether those sounds are in the realm most people would call music, i.e., imitating the sounds of acoustical music instruments, or less readily recognizable sounds we’re more likely to hear in the experimental music realm.

We also learned that there is an east-west divide in the synthesizer world, not in underlying technology, but in the nature of the human-to-machine interface, the mechanisms the operator uses to elicit sound from the electronic beast.

Robert Moog at his synthesizer in 1970

East coast synthesizers typically provide a primary interface in the form of a piano- or organ-style keyboard to play the instrument, along with various knobs and switches to customize the nature of the sound. The epitome of this east coast style are the Moog synthesizers, the name that many people think of when the topic of synthesizers comes up in conversation. Robert Moog (1934-2005) was an engineer, not a musician. So he spent a lot time with musicians when he was designing his device. His objective was to make the Moog Synthesizer something musicians would find interesting and easy to play, thus, the keyboard interface so you can play it like a piano or organ.

Moog presented the first public live demonstration of his synthesizer in 1964 at the Audio Engineering Society’s New York convention. A 2014 video made by Moog’s company looks back on that day and the legacy of the founder’s creation.

Soon thereafter, it was clear that the Moog Synthesizer was an instrument musicians could and would actually play, to amazing effects. Composer and performer Wendy Carlos blazed the trail for the possibilities of the Moog in the classical realm with her 1967 release Switched-on Bach. And Keith Emerson, of the power trio Emerson, Lake & Palmer, rocked the pop world with his Moog break in bandmate Greg Lake’s Lucky Man, changing pop music forever.

Stay tuned.

sip3: talking machines

by Klutzy McFumblefingers (aka Larry Dunn)

Week 3 of Synth in Place, the online course in DIY synthesizers taught by Kirk Pearson of Dogbotic sound labs, in collaboration with Thingamajigs, focused on two things: talk boxes and learning to solder.

One of our homework assignments from week 2 was to select a piece of music we like that makes use of some sort of machine/electronic manipulation of the human voice. My choice was rocker Joe Walsh’s 1973 mega-hit Rocky Mountain Way. When this song debuted, it was my first exposure to the use of the talk box, and I think its first use in rock & roll. In this live performance from the 2004 Crossroads Guitar Festival (below, starting about 3:20), you’ll see Joe switch guitars and move to a rig that includes a length of clear poly tubing stuck into his mouth. Joe starts vocalizing other-worldly sounds along with his guitar.

At, and since, the time I first heard this, I would describe it as “Joe is singing through his guitar.” But, as we learned in class, that is the opposite of what is happening. The sound from his guitar is playing into his mouth, from a speaker that is hooked up to that tubing. So what we are hearing is the sound of the guitar plus whatever sounds Joe vocalizes, using his own “human talk-box” (more on that later), and the combined, other-worldly sounds are then amplified through his microphone.

Rough illustration of a talk box setup

It turns out that a talk box is an exceedingly simple thing to build. The illustration above gives a rough idea of how the rig goes together. The red box marked “HOW YOU DO THIS IS THE TRICKY PART” requires only some simple electronics, essentially the oscillator circuit we have already built, plus a plastic funnel to wedge the speaker into (aimed at the small end of the funnel) and a length of tubing to bring it to your mouth.

We focused on the talk box in class, in part because it is so simple to make and could be a fun component of any DIY synths we might build. But it is also instructive in understanding the whole concept of synthesizing sound. The way a talk box works is remarkably similar to the way the human body synthesizes sounds, such as speech, using the combination of muscles and other structures that make up the human voice track. The diaphragm is the oscillator in human voice synthesis, and the throat, tongue, teeth, and lips are the filters that can be contorted into various shapes to make the sounds that are the building blocks of audible speech.

International Phonetic Alphabet

The ever-clever linguists of the International Phonetics Association have codified all the different sounds the human voice track can make in the International Phonetic Alphabet. Each of these sounds are classified as to which body organs are used to make them. You can demonstrate some of this for yourself, using The Pink Trombone site where you can interactively manipulate the human voice track and observe the resulting changes in the sounds produced.


The other focus of our week 3 class was on soldering, which is the key to migrating the oscillator circuits we made in week 2 from the prototyping breadboard environment to a permanent home on a circuit board. Soldering is both incredibly easy, and yet quite dangerous if you are not careful. That thing operates at about 700° Fahrenheit, and takes steady hands and mindfulness about where you set it down and how you pick it up. And the solder, as it melts, gives off some noxious fumes. I’m not at all sure septuagenarian Klutzy McFumblefingers with chronic lung disease (that’s me) is going to actually be doing any soldering. But it is still fun to learn how it is done and what it enables you to do.

After soldering all our oscillator components onto the circuit board, our next step is to morph this puppy into a talk box. We just need to solder connections to a small circular speaker into our circuit board, use a hot glue gun to cement the speaker, face-down, into the small end of a plastic funnel, and slather some silicone caulk over the back of the speaker so the sound doesn’t leak out backwards. Once the caulk is good and dry, attach the poly tubing to the funnel, then fire it up and start making your own electronic music with your mouth!

Before wrapping up this week’s post, I’ll call your attention to a real world example of just the sort of DIY synths we’re aiming to build. I happened to catch the video below in a post from the International Contemporary Ensemble‘s recently completed Ensemble Evolution summer workshop, presented in collaboration with The New School. Ensemble Evolution participant Leni Kreienberg is a musician and performance artist. Her primary practice focuses on voice and electronic creation and performance, aspiring to connect and blend genres. Her latest work focuses on using dance and movement-derived data to feed into musical computer systems. Here is Leni Kreienberg’s playground, from 2019.

Finally, if you’re wondering about that featured image on this post, I’ve so far neglected to point out that our class mascot is Dynomutt, the star of a spinoff from The Scooby-Do Show, from Hanna-Barberra, titled Dynomutt, Dog Wonder. According to Wikipedia, the show “centers on a Batman-esque superhero, the Blue Falcon, and his assistant, Dynomutt, a bumbling, yet effective robotic dog who can produce a seemingly infinite number of mechanical devices from his body.” Sadly, Dynomutt suffered the cruel Hollywood fate of being cancelled, in 1977, after just one season. But, take heart. Dynomutt is apparently back, in the brand new SCOOB! feature-length film.