Buchla 200e playing shot

For many, the notion of producing sound by patching spaghetti-like nests of cords in hardware is a historical curiosity. Even among those who appreciate this hardware for what it is, conventional wisdom says such instruments aren’t really modern. (Don’t even ask the various universities who gave up on using and maintaining the gear entirely, relegating them to dusty closets — or much worse.) Modular synths are under pressure in 2007 to compete with lots of new technologies. Is it worth making music with them?

Composer/musician Richard Lainhart has taken up what is perhaps the most modern of modular analog synths — the Buchla 200e — not because of historic interest, but because “I’ve come to miss the immediacy and organic sound of analog modular synthesizers.” He’s not planning to lock himself in a room and make archaic, hours-long compositions with it, either; he chose it because its patch memory is “ideal for live performance.” And, as a person trained as a composer myself, that seems like the ultimate test of an instrument — if you can actually play it live.

Even if you’re not ready to shell out the money required to buy your own 200e (they cost about as much as a pickup truck), if you have any interest in synthesis at all, it’s worth joining Richard on his explorations. Get started by checking out the Introduction video for a look at his rig and how he uses it, then check out expressive applications like the video entitled “Chorale.” It’s immediately inspiring as a way of thinking about sound and performance. I certainly can’t afford this setup myself, but then that’s not the point. Once you see an exciting performance, you’ll find a way to do something of your own on what you can afford; that’s part of the grand tradition of music.

This happens to be an excellent demonstration of the potential of the Haken Continuum Fingerboard controller, as well.

We’ll be watching, Richard.

O-Town Media: Buchla

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Buchla 200e + Haken Continuum Photo Teaser: Modern Classics?
Haken Continuum Fingerboard, Alternative Music Controller, in Action

  • Hungry Antelope

    Modular synthesis with patch cords is a bit outdated. I think that a lot of the companies producing modular synths are more interested in milking the retro-analog crowd that producing cutting edge equipment.

    There is no reason that you can't use a modulation matrix of switches or knobs (or pins as some old school synths used) in order to route signals instead of patch cords. And there is no reason that you can't create a modular system that would have patch memory (a moog voyager isn't any less analog because you can store patches).

  • Hungry Antelope

    Woops… I got around to looking at the video, and Buchla is doing a lot of the things I was talking about.

    But I still think that non Buchla modular companies are slacking!!!

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    Well, I don't know that any of these makers would argue … they're building synths in limited runs for a small audience and tailoring the instruments to that crowd. They're also keeping prices much lower than Buchla. I guess what I don't know is whether that's a philosophical question, or whether it's too hard to keep prices down with modulation matrices and patch memory entering the equation. Certainly, the Buchla is a no holds barred, high-end, cutting-edge machine. (And likewise, if you tried to patch this together yourself from other gear, you'd wind up making something MORE expensive than the 200e, not less… so the Buchla really is in its own league.) So, I don't know … anyone more knowledgeable in that area, could those other vendors add patch memory? (Modulation matrices can't be THAT hard, though the Buchla is a unique elegant design in many other ways, as well.)

    I thought it was gutsy when Jim Aikin wrote this in Keyboard:

    "In 2005, the competition for the 200e includes not only other hardware modular synths, but also software-based instruments like Native Instruments Reaktor and Cycling ’74 Max/MSP, both of which sport far deeper feature lists than the 200e and are extensible in ways that no hardware instrument could ever be. Given the power and sound quality of today’s software, the high price of the 200e is bound to limit its appeal. But Don Buchla had no illusions about this when he designed the 200e."

    I think it was sort of the elephant in the room. That to me is still the competition.

    At the same time, the challenge runs both ways — software has a long way to go in terms of an organic process in actually making sound, when it comes to the truly modular tools. I think software now actually does a better job with semi-modular tools, but much as I love Reaktor and Max/MSP, I don't *enjoy* patching with them as much as with the Buchla and Moog. If you're really lucky, of course, you won't have to choose, and I agree that modulars are far more useful with patch memory.

  • dead_red_eyes

    I'm so freaking jealous of that Haken Continuum!!!

    Also, I'd freaking kill to have a badass modular synth … but I will probably never have the cash for it … or the Haken Continuum.

  • http://www.deltasleep.net deltasleep

    Anybody know where I can find some kind of interesting music made by someone with one of these?

    I find a lot of "samples," "studies" and a lot of "improvisation," but I'd like to hear something where maybe, the music is the point, not "science."

    I think that says a lot.

    While I absolutely love the Buchla, it's in the "money is not even a consideration" category. Since I'm not in that category, and can't understand it, I'd rather have the amazing studio and vintage synths that I could get with the money.

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    @deltasleep: I enjoy Richard's playing on it, personally — I'd say music is the point, though the resulting music of course is a matter of taste. There aren't as many 200e's out in the world, but plenty of music was made with its predecessors: Wendy Carlos, Suzanne Ciani, many early electronic music compositions out of the SF scene, Morton Subotnik's landmark "Silver Apples of the Moon" … now I know I'm forgetting some. Anyone else?

  • http://www.simonsound.co.uk simon

    Wow that Haken Continuum is good. I also enjoyed Richards music and if I'm honest I didn't expect to. I have to agree in part with deltasleep that its so often more about the gear than what is created with it. As a owner and member of a modular synth and a member of a modular synth forum I tend to see a lot of talking about capabilities, how many modules, size of cabinet but not so much about making music.

    I wouldn't say I'm a master of modular synths, far from it. I happen to enjoy the hands on open ended creative process and its a challenge to create sounds that are musical. I also love creating amazing out of this world sounds. My modular is another tool that helps me do this alongside soft synths, plug in effects, studer reel to reel tape machine and whatever else I can find to throw into the mix. 17th century Water Mills can be pretty musical.

  • http://www.keithhandy.com Keith Handy

    I certainly can’t afford this setup myself, but then that’s not the point. Once you see an exciting performance, you’ll find a way to do something of your own on what you can afford; that’s part of the grand tradition of music.

    That's one of the coolest & wisest things you've said on here. :)

  • http://myles.debastion.com myles

    Ahha, sexy custom overlay on that continuum fingerboard, (the reason why I watched this of course), first I've seen with big black areas marked out.

    Sort of reminds me of people writing the names of the notes on their pianos in big black markets though..

    I concur with Keith, very good point about seeking alternatives that work for you and you can afford.

    Mmmmm, but still nothing quite like drooling over elusive expensive musical hardware.. *drools profusely*.

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  • http://www.stretta.com Matthew Davidson

    Sorry Peter, but I think it is a erroneous to lump Wendy Carlos in with the rest of the West Coast Buchla crowd.

  • http://www.stretta.com Matthew Davidson

    <blockquote cite="Modular synthesis with patch cords is a bit outdated.">

    A bit of an anachronism, yes, I'd agree.

    I have spent a lot of time recently thinking about what it means to be a synthesist in a world where pressing down a single key using a preset on a soft synth produces an entire, interesting, evolving track.

    Building a sound on a modular with patch cords, working with your hands, has a certain appeal. I don't feel modular manufacturers are being opportunistic. No one is laughing their way to the bank servicing this market. The manufacturers are serving a grass roots community.

    I suspect this community wouldn't exist if it were not for the other modern tools of music technology, specifically, DAWs. Because we can manipulate digital audio as easily as MIDI these days, it is much more fun to use a modular than in the old days.

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    I'm not lumping in Wendy Carlos … I would say, in fact, she was nearly as influential in terms of adoption of the instrument and its synthesis methods as were the San Francisco Tape Center folks.

  • http://www.myspace.com/endif Endif

    I'm shocked no one has mentioned the builders that make their own DIY synths from schematics, PCB's, and kits.

    One can build from schematics, make your own or join group-buys of PCBs, and for the true noobs (like myself a month or so ago) there are kits from companies such as Blacet.

    All of these options are far cheaper (and franlkly, more rewarding) than buying over priced dinosaurs of dubious quality, and one can, of course, customize as one sees fit.

    A major hotbed for this activity is http://electro-music.com/forum/index.php?f=112
    Legendary designers such as Thomas Henry are regular contributors to the forums there..

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