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Rewired – the Resurgence of Analog Sound Synthesis

Text: Janne Vanhanen

Even a casual follower of the discourse around electronic or experimental music cannot have missed a phenomenon that could be called an “analog revival”. During the last few years there has been a notable increase in interest towards analog sound synthesis and its history. Alongside the established canon of post-war pioneers (the avant-garde of Karlheinz Stockhausen or Morton Subotnick and the more popular context of Wendy Carlos, Delia Derbyshire and Klaus Schulze, among many others), recent archival reissues of recordings by perhaps lesser known figures such as Suzanne Ciani, Laurie Spiegel and Eliane Radigue suggest that there is an orientation towards forming a more nuanced picture of the formative decades – mid-1950s to early 1970s – of electronic music and of analog sound synthesis technology in particular.


The most concrete feature of the analog revival can be seen in the marketplace of hardware: well-established manufacturers such as Moog and Korg are relaunching their formerly discontinued product lines and, in addition, small-scale boutique companies are introducing new analog synthesizer models. Increase in production may have something to do with an overall trend for “retro” products – vinyl records and turntables, hand-made replicas of classic equipment etc. – but, as even the most modest analog synthesizer commandeers a hefty price tag, the resurgence in their trade cannot be explained away as their being a mere fashion accessory.

Granted, the price of manufacturing has come down with advances in the production of electronic circuits, so that newly introduced models of classic synths are no longer soldered together by hand but by automatic means. This has lowered the price of synthesizers and may be one of the causes of increased trade. Music technology magazine Sound On Sound even proposes the possibility of industrial-type production of equipment as the main reason behind the influx of product. (1)

Yet, the demand has been existent even before the relaunch of production lines, as the classic synthesizer models of the analog age have been sought after in second-hand market and have commandeered high prices because of the scarcity of synths on offer. What I would like to do here is to expand upon the underpinnings of such demand, to have a look outside the considerations of mere marketing and consumer fashions.


MALLEABLE SOUND

What, then, might make the analog model of sound synthesis so appealing? In plain terms, analog sound synthesis means a process of transforming electrical current into sound by routing the electrical signal through various adjusting modules that shape the resulting sound waveform. Difference to digital synthesis is in the way analog process involves a continuous variation of the synthesized signal, whereas digital synthesis is the result of a calculation process of discrete units.

Photo by Tom CroninIn everyday practical terms, working with analog synthesizers, in comparison to digital computer workstations, definitely has a more tactile feel to it. If one looks at a typical analog synth setup, which at its most extreme can amount to huge racks of external modules linked together by patch cords, it is easy to see that operating the user interface requires much more physical activity. Joining the cords and manipulating rows and rows of controllers feels more intense than just clicking a mouse and staring at a screen.

Sound synthesis and editing on computer can, in the end, turn out to be extensively visual activity. Typically, one views visual representations of sound arranged on a timeline, cuts and pastes segments of these, selects certain areas to apply modifications to, and so on. In contrast, what the proponents of analog synthesizers seem to appreciate is the hands-on approach to creating and controlling the sounds. In the era when synthesizers were introduced into music-making, the immediacy of producing synthesized sounds was appreciated by many composers who were accustomed to the necessity of writing score music. This was especially important for musicians and composers working in the experimental field, as their resources were often limited. This aspect is illustrated by Laurie Spiegel who explains her realization that, after having been introduced to Buchla synthesizers at the end of 1960’s, “you were making the sounds yourself, as opposed to writing them down on a score and then hoping you could persuade a conductor and an orchestra to turn them into sound. You could immediately hear the realization of your ideas.” (2)

This sense of immediacy is echoed also by many contemporary interviewees in I Dream of Wires, an extensive documentary film on analog synth aficionados: working with analog gear feels more like playing an instrument. For instance, musician and producer Trent Reznor specifically mentions the “tactile, aesthetic appeal” of analog hardware. (3)

Necessity of handiwork may be more conductive to experimentation musically. With no screen to provide visual input, heavy emphasis on listening is brought upon the work. Constantly adjusting the different oscillators and filters to “shape” the sound transforms the human–synthesizer interface into a likeness of a sculptor working with malleable material, the qualities of which are explored in the process of working and which provide information for future decisions. This is, in a nutshell, the definition of a cybernetic feedback loop where the output of a system is directed into its input, forming a circuit where the information produced previously effects the information produced at a later stage. This mode of working with the material is akin to a dialogue – or polylogue – between the musician and the machine and is analogous to the experimental field of topology, as theorized by Brian Massumi. According to him, topological transformations require sensitivity to the qualities of the transformed material or object: “Topology is a purely qualitative science ... It is matter in analog mode. This is the analog in a sense close to the technical meaning, as a continuously variable impulse or momentum that can cross from one qualitatively different medium into another. Like electricity into sound waves.” (4) This sounds very much like a definition of analog sound synthesis in itself.

In such qualitative work of sound production and modulation, the system components and the user interface of synthesizers play a great role. In the early history of sound synthesis, during a very productive period from mid-1960s to early 1970s, a rift between interface options appeared, dividing the equipment in conceptual and practical terms into two camps. A pioneer in modular approach to sound synthesis – where any module could control the parameters of another – Moog synthesizers assumed a “traditionally” musical approach in the sense that they integrated a piano-type keyboard as a performance interface. This choice of interface proved successful, as Moog synths became the instruments of choice for many keyboardists, for instance, in the popular music contexts where a keyboard-led instrument was easy to integrate into music keeping within traditional parameters (i.e. melodic and harmonic variation within tempered Western scale, traditional instrument separation of a rock band etc.). In such a context synthesizers were used to introduce new tonalities situated in a fairly established musical language.

A different approach was taken by Buchla synthesizers, which utilized non-traditional control interfaces and were geared towards randomized or generative control of sound with no basis on fixed scale. It seems clear enough that from this basis a more avant-garde approach to music would be suitable. Many experimental composers such as Morton Subotnick adopted the Buchla as their sound-generating instrument. Working with the Buchla 200 model in 1970’s, composer Suzanne Ciani explains its appeal: “I found the frequency range of traditional instruments to be really subdued, with no low or high end. With electronics, you went the whole gambit. Other music sounded kind of muffled. As a composer for traditional instruments, you’re limited by things like how long someone can hold their breath or the fingerings or the ranges. With the Buchla, suddenly all these doors opened. You could trans-morph a sound, like you could turn a bass to a wind, fly it around the room and turn it upside down.” (5)

Outside the above dichotomy, other types of control interfaces were devised in 1960s and ‘70s: for instance, composers David Rosenboom and Pierre Henry did respectively utilize “brainwaves” (i.e. measurable electrical activity along the scalp) to provide input to voltage-controlled sound synthesizers, in effect sniffing brain phenomena. Erkki Kurenniemi’s partly digital DIMI-synthesizer models integrated a range of input systems – for instance, DIMI-O used a video camera to transform visual information into sound.

Screen capture from DIMI-O ”video ballet”. Online:
http://www.http://yle.fi/aihe/artikkeli/2008/03/18/dimi-suomalainen-synt...



CRITICAL SYNTHESIS

However much the separation between different interface philosophies is emphasized, the fact remains that even the Buchla systems could be fitted with keyboards and the Moogs controlled by randomized input. Distinctions between “avant-garde” and “pop” synthesizers are even more vague nowadays as new equipment often combines sound-generating modules with more structure- or grid-based tools such as sequencers. The modular approach enables users to make their own configurations suitable for their particular needs. Moreover, analog and digital domains bleed into each other as analog components are used in sound production and digital interfaces utilized in the arrangement of the sounds, making use of the respective strengths of both analog and digital.

Still, the reason for analog synths’ appeal may lie in their relative restrictions. As one is not able to simply call up pre-synthesized or sampled sounds from a digital memory bank, one has to delve into the fundamental properties of sound itself when conjuring it into existence by analog synthesis. Philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari even consider analog sound synthesis to be a model for updating Immanuel Kant’s critical philosophy: “By assembling modules, source elements, and elements for treating sound (oscillators, generators, and transformers), by arranging microintervals, the synthesizer makes audible the sound process itself, the production of that process, and puts us in contact with still other elements beyond sound matter. It unites disparate elements in the material, and transposes the parameters from one formula to another. The synthesizer, with its operation of consistency, has taken the place of the ground in a priori synthetic judgment...” (6)

To try to put it in simple terms, for Kant the synthetic a priori judgments are of primary importance to us as subjects, as they only can generate new information that is necessarily true by synthesizing different elements; for instance, it is a synthetic judgment that the angles of a triangle add up to a straight line – this information is not “contained” in the concept of a triangle but must be acquired by sensible intuition which, in turn, works “topologically” by experimenting with variations. Deleuze and Guattari consider the synthesizer as the modern a priori synthetic machine capable of holding together heterogeneous elements and, as a necessary addition, to extract a rule of construction for this new synthetic object. For them, synthesized sound is eminently philosophical. Crucially, here a distinction between the analog and the digital must be kept in mind, as it is namely analog synthesis that achieves this; digital processing of information integrates its contents into homogeneous code and involves calculation instead of critical experimentation with the rules of construction.

Even if one does not go deeply into the ontological dimensions of sound synthesis, Deleuze and Guattari’s writings provide an ethos of experimentation to “analog” art forms: to bring heterogeneous elements together in direct contact and to experiment with techniques to achieve this heterogeneity. The promise of the production of this “newness” is where the visionary dimension of analog sound synthesis ultimately lies. As we, in the post-digital age, are now completely accustomed to electronically produced or manipulated sounds, returning into the formative years of sound synthesis seems to bring back something of the wonder of the perceived potential of producing something new: new sounds, new sensations.


Janne Vanhanen is a postdoctoral researcher in Aesthetics at the University of Helsinki. His interests include electronic and experimental music, both historical and contemporary and his current research project examines the concept of noise as an aesthetic category.



NOTES

(1) "The Analogue Revival" Sound On Sound 3/2014, no writer attributed (accessed 30.11.2016): http://www.soundonsound.com/reviews/analogue-revival

(2) Simon Reynolds: ”Resident Visitor: Laurie Spiegel’s Machine Music”, Pitchfork 6.12.2012: http://www.pitchfork.com/features/article/9002-laurie-spiegel/ (accessed 30.11.2016).

(3) I Dream of Wires, directed by Robert Fantinatto and Jason Amm, 2014.

(4) Brian Massumi: Parables for the Virtual – Movement, Affect, Sensation, Durham & London: Duke University Press 2002, p. 135.

(5) ”Suzanne Ciani on... her Buchla beginnings, talking dishwashers and why no one got electronic music in the ’70s”, Self-Titled Magazine 3.4.2014, no writer attributed: http://www.self-titledmag.com/2014/04/03/interview-suzanne-ciani-on-her-... (accessed 30.11.2016).

(6) Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari: A Thousand Plateaus. Translated by Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press 1987, p. 343.

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