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Part 3: Alien Nature

Back to Exploring Analog series

All-Natural Flavors

You often hear that analog synths make warm, organic and natural sounds. We can only agree. Some of those lush pads can really give you the impression of being wrapped in a soft, cozy blanket of sound. Just as often, you hear that analog synths make eerie, otherworldly sounds unlike anything heard before. We agree to that, too!
“When it comes to synths, I'm analog all the way.”
Eves Karydas ponders how synth technology changes the way we perceive music.
Read the Elektronauts Talk

Are You Analog?

So, which one is it? Natural or alien? See, this is the whole problem right here. As human beings, we live in an in-between world, we’re the interface between the natural and the alien. Are we unnatural, in our evolution as a technological animal? Is nature even capable of producing unnatural things? Let’s not forget that nature can produce some real outlandish sounds without any help from us.

Strange Nature

You’ve got the singing sand: the Kelso Dunes in California. They will boom, bark or whistle under the right circumstances. Springtime, there’s singing ice on the eastern shore of lake Vättern in Sweden: sheets of melting ice rub against each other, making a wailing or squelchy sound. Hearing the random-walk noise of Gullfoss falls in Iceland is like listening to an old television, tuned to a dead channel.

Modular Constructivism

Experiments with the physics of sound, electric oscillators, resonators and music technology date back to the mid-1800s (Helmholtz, Kelvin, Mach). The modern history of synths began in the melting pot of 1960s USA, with its youth culture, popular awareness of science and cheap, mass produced electric components. Hobbyists were making synths like never before. Check out six people who started out as experimental tinkerers and became legends.

1963 1964 1968 1969 1974 1975

1963

Whether the switchboard-like modular analog synthesizer with its off-the-shelf component build and low voltage control and signal circulatory system first saw the light of day on the American West or East Coast we do not know. Was the race for the first commercially available modular synth won by Don Buchla of California by a beard’s length? In any case, the Buchla 100 was perhaps the first modular synthesizer to make musical use of a source of uncertainty. Buchla put in a lot of effort to find a unique interface other than the traditional keyboard for this new breed of musical instrument.

1964

Meanwhile, in New York, Doctor Robert Moog had already succeeded reverse-engineering, modernizing and commercializing the Russian inventor Lev Termen’s ether instrument Termenvox (now called Theremin). His next project was to produce a modular synthesizer that would appeal to the classically trained musician. He designed the first keyboard-equipped modular synthesizer and named it Prototype. Many more were to follow, including a compact subset of the system that became the iconic Minimoog.

1968

This year, Wendy Carlos did for the Moog modular synthesizer what Clara Rockmore did for Lev Termen’s Termenvox exactly thirty years before: brought an electronic instrument to a mass audience. In this case, on a much greater scale, with the release of the album Switched-On Bach. In 1970, it was the first synthesizer-only album to win a Grammy award (in fact, it won three).

1969

Brooklyn composer, musician and inventor Raymond Scott’s influence on the early development of synthesizers cannot be overstated. In 1963, he completed a synthesizer rhythm machine with the best name ever: Bandito the Bongo Artist. His most ambitious project, one of the weirdest synths ever made, was the Electronium. The concept was to not let the musician exert total control of this instrument, but rather be on equal terms with and essentially a part of the machine. The musician would set the initial conditions, the machine generated the music according to some alien algorithms, the musician would respond to the resulting music and so on, involving all participants in an ever-changing feedback loop. Man, and machine, making music with joint creative authority! Scott stated the machine was even capable of artificial intelligence. What remains of the Electronium is currently owned by Mark Mothersbaugh of DEVO. We wish him the best of luck in his efforts to bring it back to life.

1974

Expertly wielding the Buchla brand of modular synthesizers, Suzanne Ciani started her company Ciani/Musica and took the first bold steps toward creating a diegetic vocabulary of electronic sound for film, television and video games. Chances are, your recollection of what popping open and pouring can of Coke sounds like is the synthesized sound shaped by Ciani, rather than what you actually heard the last time you did it. Her early career, involving the fields of artificial intelligence, computer generated music and analog synthesized sound did wonders not only for shaping distinct new sounds. It was also instrumental in shaping the air of wonder and awe surrounding electronic music. Suzanne is still very active in the ever-evolving field she helped define. Check out her new album LIVE Quadraphonic. It’s simply a perfectly cut diamond.

1975

The Serge Modular was one of the most popular modular systems that came out of California. Loved for its high-quality sound, reliable banana cord patching, clever modules like the wave multiplier, and the fact that it was affordable compared to other systems at the time. Inventor and composer Serge Tcherepnin was, like John Chowning (father of FM synthesis) classically trained by the great Nadia Boulanger in Paris.

Real Artificial

Then there are those sounds you’d think came from a natural source, but really didn’t. You know that sweet soprano voice that makes the Beach Boys’ Good Vibrations refrain shine? Ribbon-controlled amplitude modulated analog synthesizer built by Moog. That refreshing pop and pour sound from the most iconic Coca Cola tv-commercial? Buchla analog modular system, expertly wrangled by Suzanne Ciani. The whale song warning the great mammals of danger during the first Greenpeace anti-whaling expedition? A Serge Modular.
“I opened the door to something that I will experiment on further for a long time, exploring gear, exploring sound.”
Timo Kaukolampi of K-X-P brings modulars, vintage synths, Analog Four and Analog Heat together.
Read the Elektronauts Talk

Heaven and Earth

Forget all the above. An American analog synth has a warm, organic sound while a Japanese one sounds more cool and electronic. That was the stereotype way to describe the difference in sound in the early years of analog synthesis. Perhaps there was a grain of truth to the generalization? Thing is, what is warm, what is cool, what is normal and what is alien in a synthetic sound? That’s all down to our conventions, what we’re used to listening to, and that changes with time and place.

There are differences in sound, of course. That is true of any unique synthesizer with care and thought put into its design. What does a Swedish synthesizer sound like? We think the Analog Four is a master of sounds, natural or alien, warm or cool, rich or distinctive. Anything we set our mind to. One of the most fascinating qualities of analog synths is that they’re able to sound both alien and natural at the same time. Maybe that’s why they work so well alongside any other instrument? One sound turns our head up towards the stars, another plants our feet firmly on the ground.

Music is an act of balancing harmony and dissonance, order and chaos, alien and natural. The alien nature of analog sound puts us in a productive position, a place where we truly belong, halfway between Heaven and Earth.

Analog Synth Timeline

The small set of seven analog synthesizers shown below is by no means complete or representative. There are just so many awesome synths we love, too many to mention. What can be seen, though, is the huge gap between the first golden age of analog, lasting roughly a decade, and the second one which we’re in right now.

1970 1972 1974 1978 1981 1982 2012

1970 – Minimoog

American inventor and entrepreneur Dr Robert Moog made this specifically for musicians who couldn’t be expected to bring his huge modular system on tour. This legendary instrument set the basics for an analog in-the-box synth, in terms of looks, what modules to incorporate and panel layout. Still sounds good to this day. Gary Numan’s hit single Are ‘Friends’ Electric? relies heavily on the sound of the Minimoog. The VCS 3, an equally iconic 3-oscillator synth by British company EMS, was released in 1969 (think Roxy Music’s Virginia Plain).

1972 – ARP Odyssey

A scaled down version of a portable modular system, the ARP 2600, famous for making the adorable bleeps and whistles of R2-D2 heard in the first Star Wars trilogy. The ARP Odyssey had a piercing, less warm character compared to the Minimoog, a sound favored by Klaus Shulze. Made by US manufacturer ARP Instruments, Inc. founded by Alan Robert Pearlman.

1974 – SEM

Made by Tom Oberheim, a former ARP employee. The Synthesizer Expander Module was the first complete desktop synth: two oscillators, a 2-pole filter and two ADR envelopes. To be jacked into any modular system that, like Moog and ARP, used the Volt/Octave standard. By stacking them, adding modulators and a digital control matrix (sequencer) Tom realized he had a pretty awesome compact synth on his hands. Evolved into the OB-X (think Van Halen’s Jump) and the massive Matrix-12.

1978 – MS-20

The raw sound of this hands-on two-oscillator mono synth by Korg was aggressive and rewarding, but the sound design required one who knew synthesis by heart. Its semi-modular design meant it had a ready-made signal path as well as connections for jacking it into other Korg (or Yamaha) instruments using the Hz/volt system. Used by artists with an attitude, from Fad Gadget through Aphex Twin to Gorillaz.

1981 – TB-303

Originally intended as a bass accompaniment for live guitarists, this one produced by Roland failed to catch on for that purpose. A handful of years later, electronic musicians found out what it was destined for: to be the squelchy synthetic voice of acid, house, trance and ambient music, and bring rave culture onto an unsuspecting world. Examples of artists who use it are too numerous to mention so we’ll just pull one out of the hat: Felix da Housecat. Its Control Voltage connectivity meant it could play other instruments using the Volt/Octave system.

1982 – Juno-60

A polyphonic analog synth with digitally controlled oscillators produced by Roland. Convenient, portable and used by many mainstream and alternative artists throughout the Eighties and early Nineties. Still cherished by the likes of Daft Punk, Chemical Brothers and Sigur Rós. Like the Jupiter-8, it used the limited DCB standard for external control, but in 1984 its successor Juno-106 was equipped with the new digital MIDI standard. The Prophet 600 (made by Dave Smith’s Sequential Circuits), released in 1982, was the world’s first MIDI synth.

2012 – Analog Four

The first analog instrument made by Elektron was released in confluence with the revival of analog synthesizers. Cramming the best of the sound, control and flexibility analog had to offer into one box was no easy feat. Adding the most powerful digital sequencer, a dizzying amount of modulation destinations and connectivity with all previously mentioned gear (from Control Voltage to MIDI), bordering on bonkers. For true sound explorers.

Analog Four MKII

The Analog Four MKII represents the best of two worlds. Inimitable analog impact combined with razor-sharp digital accuracy. This is an analog synthesizer for the creative artist.

Read more

Analog Rytm MKII

Fuse distinctive analog percussion with samples. Bring in the power of sequencing and performance controls. The Analog Rytm MKII is a one stop solution beat machine.

Read more

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