Deconstructing Pop Culture

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Don Buchla

September 18th, 2016 by David Kronemyer · No Comments

I knew him somewhat – he was based in Berkeley, and I was, too, for awhile. Although I had used them, I never really could afford one of his marvelous creations, until about 15 years ago. When Rick Smith, the ultimate knowledge source for all things Buchla, helped our production company find two original System 100’s, and then a System 200. Later, Buchla began releasing/re-releasing new modules for a System 200e, which we also started acquiring, and before long we had one of those, too.

There will be a lot of palaver about the “east coast” school of synthesis (Moog) versus the “west coast” school (Buchla) – whose oscillators sounded better, whose designs were most ingenious, etc. Reminiscent somewhat of “east coast” rap (Biggie) versus “west coast” rap (Tupac). Buchla’s designs were definitely more peculiar, emphasizing different ways to originate and process control voltage. For example, use of touch-plates, instead of a keyboard. This made them a little bit harder to comprehend – but a lot more rewarding, especially if you were experimental.

Buchla recruited me to help protest a Sound on Sound review that he thought was disparaging, and I wrote a Letter to the Editor (something I rarely do!). After that he called me every now and then to check in.

A year ago – or was it two? – he had some complex questions about the transaction in which he sold his company to its now proprietors. I answered them, reviewed his options, and referred him to a law firm that could take on his case. [I feel constrained by professional ethics not to go into exactly who said what to whom.] I understand the matter was settled shortly before his death – I wonder if he was contemplating it.

From time to time I’ve been contacted by various people who wanted to make a movie about him, akin to the one about Bob Moog, which was poorly done. I thought it would be very cool, and had some ideas about how to film, market and promote it. But also tempered with a strong dose of realism. One thing people who are involved in an intense but small community of aficionados tend to forget is that most other people couldn’t care less about what they’re interested in. You tend to conflate what you’re interested in with what the world at large might be interested in – project your interests on to them – when in fact, they couldn’t care less. I’m guilty of this tendency from time to time. The documentary “I Dream of Wires” was successful because it dealt with more than one manufacturer, took a broad perspective, was well-produced, and cleverly marketed. On the other hand, it seemed unlikely that a Buchla documentary – no matter how well executed – would have enough propulsion to justify its costs. But we’ll see what happens.

His passing reminded me about how exciting and innovative the world of analog modular synthesis has become over the last decade, primarily in the so-called Eurorack format. So far as I can tell, this started with Dieter Doepfer, simultaneously in the UK with Bob Williams (Analogue Systems) and Tom Carpenter (Analogue Solutions). They precipitated what only can be called a renaissance in analog modular synth design. Now, there are dozens of companies manufacturing modules that are astonishing in their concept, versatility and capability to make sounds that nobody’s ever heard before – that’s the objective, isn’t it? The world doesn’t really need more oscillators or mixers. What the most innovative modules do is manipulate control voltage, filter sounds, and integrate analog with digital in unexpected but fortuitous ways. While it’s hard to keep up, we try to patronize these manufacturers as best we can.

As it turns out, all of these sounds – and many others – can be recreated within the digestive tract of any modern computer, using “virtual instruments” that integrate seamlessly with programs such as Logic and Ableton. So modular synthesis is more of an aesthetic than something practical. Based on my experience in the industry, I estimate that the world-wide market for most of these pieces is in the range of 100-2,500 units, depending on the manufacturer, how hip and cool the module is, what it does, and similar factors. Whereas Roland and Korg can sell tens of thousands of pieces. Not coincidentally, both now are migrating back into the analog and analog-facsimile modular world, issuing/re-issuing new and reconceptualized versions of old designs.

Buchla was at the dawn of all of this happening, and rightly can be considered as one of its patriarchs.