Are you the proud owner of the book: Museum of Synthesizer Technolgy – by Martin Newcomb ? This book was published at the same time the Museum was opened. Yes: this museum did exist …. but unfortunately it has gone. Does anyone of you know what happened to the Museum, why it closed, what Martin Newcomb is doing? Where the instruments have gone? Have you visited this museum? Let us know!
This article about The Museum of Synthesizer Technology appeared in the Sound on Sound magazine October issue of 1994. Written by Julian Colbeck. Please note that all (c) are with Sound on Sound and the author. We’ve added some images, of which not all were included in the article, and you’ll also find two videos taken from the limited edition of VHS tape that was issued. The original article can be found here.
Where can you go to mess about on a Minimoog, do battle with a Buchla, operate an Odyssey, programme a PolyVoks or make friends with a modular? The Museum of Synthesizer Technology has all this and much more, and was recently officially opened by none other than Bob Moog at a star‑studded ceremony. Julian Colbeck reports.
We’ve all dreamt about opening a synth museum, haven’t we? By the very nature of their design, their sounds, their undefinability, synthesizers attract dreamers. But let’s face it, the practicalities of such a notion make it preposterously unlikely. How long would it take to amass enough instruments that could constitute a collection? Where and how could you display them? How could you keep them all up and running? Then let’s talk dosh — or perhaps not. When you stop to consider opening a synth museum for any period of time longer than it takes to sink that final pint in the pub, the whole concept rapidly dissipates into yet another of those splendid ideas you’re never, remotely, going to carry out. Unless your name is Martin Newcomb, of course.
Martin Newcomb is not some hippy who spends his weekends soldering CV and Gate sockets onto the back of Boss Chorus pedals, or combing car boot sales for copies of old Greenslade bootlegs. He is a banker who works in the City. He’s done rather well at it, too. And, fortunately for the likes of us, when — after a particularly healthy exchange on the Stock Market and the birth of his first child — our Martin decided he needed a hobby to keep him homeward bound, he chose synthesizers.
Within a few weeks this hobby became keen interest, keen interest became passion, and eventually obsession. After a couple of years Martin’s obsession (even he describes himself as a keyboard‑aholic) threatened to engulf the entire Newcomb household, whereupon a more permanent and drastic solution had to be found. At the beginning of 1994, after discussions with another rabid vintage synth enthusiast, Bob Williams, Martin decided the only suitable solution was to build a Museum.
And so it came to be that on a sultry July 29th, in front of a mixed crowd of synth enthusiasts from around the world, press, and a smattering of celebs, none other than Bob Moog yanked the tassle beside a pair of mauve velvet curtains to unveil a small plaque commemorating the opening of the Museum of Synthesizer Technology (MST).
It seems we owe the existence of the MST to Tangerine Dream, whose concert Martin Newcomb attended while still at school and was instantly smitten by the world of knobs, wires, and hairy, earnest looking German keyboard players. Even so, Martin’s ‘secret’ was kept more or less under wraps for many a long year while he worked first on the Stock Market and latterly as a banker.
Once he came ‘out of the closet’, so to speak, Martin bought himself a modest, modern MIDI setup consisting of a Roland JD800, a master keyboard, Emu Proteus, a small mixing desk, and Creator running on the Atari ST. Then he happened across an ARP 2600 synthesizer. He bought it, loved it, but almost immediately wanted something bigger. He then happened across an Emu modular synth, managing to outbid a top London dealer for it in the process. A Minimoog followed, then a Roland System 700…
By the time a passing ARP 2500 was consigned to a cupboard under the stairs, Martin knew he had to get serious about his collection, and one of the main attractions of his present house in the sleepy Hertfordshire village of Albury — the ‘granny annexe’ — was instantly earmarked as home for his ever‑expanding pile of electronic gadgetry. But within six months this too was filled floor to ceiling, which is when, during discussions with Bob Williams, plans to create a purpose‑built Museum in the grounds of the Newcomb estate were hatched.
Williams and Californian vintage synth dealer Chris Youdell are both key figures behind the assembling of this collection; Youdell in particular was responsible for sourcing numerous instruments in California — under Newcomb’s clear‑cut direction, of course. “I didn’t want any old wrecks,” he says. “Nothing scratched, or knocked about.”
Moog & ARP
Though there was no overall grand design behind what was purchased, Martin is clearly a Moog fanatic, currently owning more than 30 separate Moog items, from obvious instruments like the Minimoog [three of these, in fact, plus one of the final 25 Limited Edition models: No.3], Prodigy, Micromoog, and Multimoog, to such rarities as a very early giant 3C modular system, a Ribbon Controller, an X‑Y Controller, Phaser, a prototype Liberation, a String Filter, and the first instrument to couple Moog with the Musonics company, a Sonic 5.
ARP was Moog’s greatest rival in the early 1970s. If the Museum collection seems weighted towards Moog as a company, it is nonetheless heavily weighted towards the ARP 2600 as an instrument. The MST boasts no fewer than four of these imposing yet vaguely portable semi‑modular instruments. Newcomb explains that one of these, the so‑called ‘Blue Meanie’ with its bright blue control panel, is extremely rare (only 100 or so were made); two are grey‑faced models, and one is a later incarnation with a black and orange panel. During the open day itself, The Underworld’s Rick Smith also explained how ARP 2600s do tend to have their own character, so this family of instruments is not quite as extraordinary a move as at first it might seem.
Though Moog and ARP slugged it out in the high street during the Seventies, there were many other American synth designers pushing forward the boundaries of electronic music at this time. The least understood but perhaps the most influential of these is Don Buchla, who has pursued (and continues to pursue) a go‑it‑alone policy of synthesizer design, with much critical acclaim but scant commercial success for the past 30 years. The Museum is fortunate enough to possess not only a very early Buchla 100 modular synth, but also the ‘bat‑eared’ Buchla Portable Music System 3 with its pair of distinctive flat speakers (used notably by Donny Osmond on the Osmonds’ 1972 hit ‘Crazy Horses’), along with the almost normal Buchla 700. Don Buchla felt that to utilise a traditional keyboard somewhat misses the point about using synthesizers, preferring a series of open‑tunable touch pads. Buchla’s pioneering spirit (he is also credited with producing one of the first sequencers — the result of his attempts to streamline the process of generating musique concrete, a compositional style he pursued zealously with composer Morton Subotnick) is perhaps only now starting to be appreciated as the world is rapidly growing tired of so much ‘keyboard‑driven’ composition.
More American Representatives
America is well represented at the Museum throughout the analogue years of 1970‑1984. A Prophet‑5 from Sequential Circuits is to be expected. Slightly rarer is the ill‑fated ‘double keyboard’ Prophet‑10. The keenly sought‑after Pro‑One monophonic is included, as is the rare Multi‑Trak variable, the Split‑Eight. As for Oberheim, there is a giant 8‑voice for anyone brave enough to attempt tuning all eight SEM oscillators, plus the silky Matrix‑12 and super‑fat Xpander.
Emu’s early history is more closely tied to OEM work than actual products (Emu’s first big success being design work on the Prophet‑5, for which they were paid royalties), but the giant 16‑voice, computer‑controlled, modular system commissioned by Tangerine Dream in 1978 was, for a time, the most advanced modular in existence. Though there is presently no original Emulator at the Museum, there is an EII, the sampling instrument that did the most to establish sampling as a commercially and musically valid enterprise in the 1980s.
Made In Japan
If America inspired the creation of the commercial synthesizer industry, then it was Japan that nurtured it through its difficult teenage years. Yamaha is only represented by the seminal CS80 [what? no DX7? — Ed.], the model here actually owned by Stevie Wonder, but both Roland and Korg have substantial sections of the Museum to themselves.
This is a living, working environment where players old and young can see, hear, and play, first hand, the instruments that have helped to shape music over the last 30 years.
Roland is represented by some of the largest and some of the smallest exhibits, from the MC202 MicroComposer (the company’s worst‑selling product, apparently, but now held in high esteem by all keen retro bands), to the sprawling System 100 and 700 modular systems. In between come an array of classic instruments and devices — from the seminal MC4 and MC8 ‘sequencers’ to the TB303 Bass Line, Jupiter 4 and Jupiter 8 synths, and much sought‑after processing units like the Space Echo and Chorus Echo.
The Korg corner essentially comprises Korg’s PS range of portable modular synths: PS3100, 3200, and 3300. The PS3300, beloved by musicians like Keith Emerson in the late 1970s, is a particularly revelatory instrument for people to play with its silken, glossy range of tone colours.
As a European‑based collection you would expect England, France, Germany, and Italy to have their finest hours on display, and indeed British companies like EMS, EDP, and OSCar, Kobol from France, PPG from Germany, and Italians Elka are all represented.
The Wasp, from the Oxfordshire‑based company, Electronic Dream Plant (EDP), was certainly one of the most unusual monophonic synths to have been built anywhere in the world. With its distinctive black and yellow panel, and touch pad keyboard, the Wasp — along with its single oscillator counterpart, the Gnat — sold in huge quantities in the late 1970s. Designer Chris Huggett went on to form the Oxford Synthesizer Company (OSC), who produced the splendid and now highly prized Oscar monophonic synthesizer (also present at the Museum), after the demise of which he became a freelance designer, working notably with Akai on their range of professional samplers.
Also presently working in conjunction with Akai, fellow British designer Dave Cockerell was one of the leading lights behind EMS, a company with a substantial product range, from the house‑sized Synthi 100 to the comparatively pocket‑sized VCS3, which found favour and notoriety with the likes of Pink Floyd and Brian Eno in the late Seventies.
The Museum’s Synthi 100 is in fine working order, and although an unbelievably complex instrument to set up, with its tiny matrix of push‑pins, still ably displays why it became so popular amongst the university music lab fraternity in its day. Synthi 100 owner Matthius Becker from Cologne gave the Synthi 100 a thorough run‑through during the open day festivities.
Less well‑known British exhibits include a Birotron B90, the too‑ridiculous‑not‑to‑be‑true collaboration between one Dave Biro and one Rick Wakeman! Testament to this misbegotten instrument’s complete lack of, well, anything frankly, is that it runs on tapes (like a Mellotron) housed in the old 8‑track cartridge cases. You will be not entirely flabbergasted to hear that the Museum’s Birotron is not presently working.
Nor is the Russian‑produced PolyVoks, a beast with an unspeakably revolting keyboard — Lord knows what it must sound like — about which no‑one I spoke to, including Bob Moog, seems to know anything!
The best‑known German synth company to date is of course PPG, whose range of bright blue synths, samplers, master keyboards, and modules found favour with the likes of Thomas Dolby early on in his career. The Museum owns a PPG 2.3 plus a Waveterm B, and was fortunate enough to have Andy Thomas, an ex‑PPG employee of the 1980s, to help set up and demonstrate the range of these powerful and influential (wave sequencing, now employed by many manufacturers, was first used by PPG) instruments.
France is represented twice, with the Kobol (no Polykobol, in case you were wondering) and the Museum’s oldest exhibit, the Ondes Ondioline, a rather twee‑looking cross between instrument and sewing machine.
Synth history is not exactly awash with Italian instruments you’d care to recall, but Elka’s Synthex is a notable exception, and Paul Wiffen’s demonstration of this 1984 pedigree 8‑voice machine convinced me that this is surely a model worth scouting around for on the second‑hand market. Paul revealed that a certain K. Emerson used to use a Synthex as an (aural) modular Moog replacement when the be‑leathered one tired of having lackeys lug the beast around in the mid‑Eighties.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the entire venture is the quality and performance of the equipment. When you consider the age and technological capabilities of so many of these vintage instruments, it is all the more astounding to report an almost complete lack of extraneous noise, buzzing, or crackles. Everything has been designed, put together, and executed to the highest standards.
This is less surprising and more important when you understand that Martin Newcomb intends that the MST will quickly establish itself on the recording studio map. Accordingly, the Museum, with its high level of modern professional recording equipment — Mac‑based sequencing; ADAT recording; Sony, Lexicon, Yamaha processing; Soundcraft console — can be hired as a recording studio for around £500 per day, enabling artists who could only hitherto dream of hiring in this level of ancient synthery, to bring their tapes to the Museum and record parts here instead.
The Open Day
The Museum’s opening day itself attracted a crowd of around 200 people, ranging from synth enthusiasts and clubs to notable celebrities such as Steve Hackett, plus Steve’s ex‑keyboardsman and writing partner Nick Magnus, Michael Kenney from Iron Maiden, Carrie Booth from Shakespeare’s Sister, Sylvie Lorain from French experimental band Deus Ex Machina, Rick Smith from The Underworld, and ace keyboardist and producer Jon Savannah. Throughout the day various synth outfits, who had set up on a covered patio area directly above the Museum, serenaded the guests with their full range of synth‑driven music. Players included Mark Jenkins, and top producers Flood (U2) and Ed Buller (Suede).
As the day drew to a close around early evening, a weary but elated Martin Newcomb revealed plans to turn July 29th into an annual event for vintage synth enthusiasts, possibly extending the scope of the performances and sideshows (Mellotron restorers Martin Smith and John Bradley were set up in an adjoining tent, showing a number of Mellotrons in varying stages of restoration). Vintage synth dealer Synthology was, and will remain in fact, open for business in the small annexe above ground, on top of the Museum itself. A Paul Wiffen controlled new vintage synth sample CD, “for vintage synth players,” as Paul puts it, which were all taken from MST instruments, sadly didn’t make the open day itself but will nonetheless be on sale and available by the time you read this. Chris Newman from Intermanual Rescue was taking requests.
In his opening speech, Bob Moog referred to the collection as testament to the “network of the imagination” he felt was in place amongst synth designers back in the 1960s, when so many brains appeared to hit upon similar ideas at the same time. Certainly, when confronted by such a wealth of sounds, features, controllers, and possibilities, it is hard not to feel that even the most hard‑hearted preset player or sample triggerer would not be inspired to investigate sounds more fully, having paid the MST a visit.
And this is surely the true value of the Museum of Synthesizer Technology. It is not, as it so easily could have been, a synth graveyard where a few ‘flat earthers’ could pick over the bones of their past. This is a living, working environment where players old and young can see, hear, and play, first hand, the instruments that have helped to shape music — and not just ‘electronic music’ — over the last 30 years.
The inclusion of modern instruments in the Museum’s central recording control room area is inspired, because it will give people direct access to comparisons between analogue and digital, MIDI and pre‑MIDI. It also inoculates the Museum against marginalisation, from becoming a place that only has appeal to the die‑hard analogue fanatic.
Assuming duties of video presenter on the open day itself, I was not able to loiter long at many of the exhibits, but the three or four instruments that did ensnare me for a while were truly revelations. I had simply forgotten the elegance and detail offered by the Rhodes Chroma, the power and depth of a Minimoog, the extreme highs and lows offered by the ARP 2600, the simple brilliance of Roland’s Vocoder, and the wide range of expression possible on a Yamaha CS80.
The Museum of Synthesizer Technology’s stated aim is to ‘preserve, restore, and promote a wider interest in the history and development of analogue musical instruments’, and judging from the success of the open day, this journey is already well underway.
Please note: this is information as per 1994 – the Museum does not exist anymore.
- If you wish to visit the Museum of Synthesizer Technology, the charge per visitor is £20 and is by appointment only.
- Most of the instruments are also available for hire.
- Hire of the whole Museum per day costs £500, including the ADAT recording facilities.
- A glossy, colour book all about the Museum and its exhibits is available mail order for £20 + postage.
- A promo video is currently being put together. Contact Martin Newcomb for details on 0279 771619.
List Of Exhibits (At 24/08/94)
- Little Brother
- Omni ll
- Blue Meanie
- 2500 Modular Wings x 2
- 2500 Modular Main Cabinets with keyboards x 3
- 2600 grey with keyboards x 2
- 2600 orange with keyboards + PPCs
- Sequencers x 6
- Odyssey light grey
- Odyssey black and gold
- 500 (Keyboard only)
- 100 Modular x 2
- Portable Electronic Music System 3
- Series 200 modules x 5
- Wasp Special
- Pitch‑to‑Voltage Convertor
- Synthi 100
- Emulator II
- Modular (main cabinet + small cabinet + keyboard)
- 6 loose modules
- PS 3100
- PS 3200
- PS 3300
- CV Convertor
- Sample & Hold
- Ribbon Controller x 2 (late; early prototype)
- Liberation (prototype)
- Sonic 5
- Sonic 6
- Parametric Equaliser
- Pedals x 2
- Bode Frequencer Shifter
- Syn Amp (complete) x 2
- Syn Amp (without cabinet)
- X‑Y Controller x 2
- 958 pedal
- 12‑stage phaser
- Modular 3c (early)
- Modular 3c (late) + double sequencer
- Modular 55 x 2 plus 2 additional cabinets
- Modular 35
- Modular 10
- Modular 15
- Modular 3P
- Minimoog x 4 (one Limited Edition)
- Polymoog keyboard
- String Filter
- Graphic Equaliser
- Ring Modulator
- Matrix 12
- Modular (cabinet with first modules ever made)
- Modular (main cabinet upper tier)
- Modular (main cabinet lower tier)
- Sequencers (stand‑alone) x 2
- Pedals x 2
- 700 Lab series
- Vocoder VP330
- 700 Modular x 2
- 100M (50 modules)
- 100 (full set)
- Keyboards 180, 181, 184 x 2
- Revo 30
- Jupiter 4
- Jupiter 8
- Chorus + Echo 201, 301, 501
- MPU 101 Convertor
- Poly sequencer
- Pro One
- Elka Synthex
- Elektor Formant (modular)
- Gleeman Pentaphonic (black + memory update)
- Kobol Expander
- Octave Plateau Voyetra 8
- Ondes Ondioline
- OSC Oscar
- PPG 2.3 + Waveterm B
- Rhodes Chroma + Expander
- Russian PolyVoks
- Vox Ampliphonic
- Wavemaker Filter Bank
- Yamaha CS80
Martin Russ: A Visitor’s View
Just like in all the best adventure stories, this one came completely out of the blue. One day I was blissfully trying to avoid the late July heatwave, the next I was being gently fried in my car, rushing into the depths of Hertfordshire. So why did I drop everything and head off into the gorgeous countryside near Bishop’s Stortford, and why were lots of other people also converging on the same spot?
Two names are very significant in answering these questions. Robert Moog probably needs little introduction, save to say that he is still running his intriguingly‑named ‘Big Briar’ company, and still making ‘alternative’ controllers for musical instruments. He is probably best known as the designer of the world’s first commercially successful music synthesizers back in the late 1960s. Wendy Carlos, A Clockwork Orange, Switched On Bach, Keith Emerson and more are all inextricably linked with Moog synthesizers. The other name is Martin J. Newcomb, the founder of the Museum of Synthesizer Technology.
Hidden away in the gently rolling countryside, there is a large detached house with a small inconspicuous new outbuilding which is surrounded by the signs of the recent movement of large amounts of soil. Gathered around the outbuilding are numerous invited guests, and a set of purple curtains covering a plaque. The scene is set, and all that is needed now is the opening. Bob Moog, a spry, quiet and gentle man, is introduced, and he proceeds to tell us of his pleasure at being invited to open this museum for Martin Newcomb, which holds probably the world’s largest collection of analogue synthesizers. The plaque is revealed, photos are taken, everyone claps, and the Museum is officially open. Then there is a rush downstairs…
Down? Yes, the Museum is located underground. In one corner of the outbuilding is a staircase, and this leads down into a subterranean ‘grotto’ full of synthesizers. Lots and lots of them. More than I ever suspected were in this country! For years, Martin Newcomb has been collecting the best, ungigged examples of the classic analogue synths. Everything works (bar a few exhibits), and it is all plugged in and ready to play.
As you might expect, the collection is not complete — could anyone ever collect every synthesizer? But when I asked Martin about the lack of an ARP Quadra and Korg 700, I received the right reply: “Not yet!” Amongst the assembled instruments were some extremely unusual synthesizers — an Elektor Formant, for instance, which was originally a DIY kit published in a Dutch‑originated electronics magazine back in the early 1980s. I spotted a Russian PolyVoks mis‑translatedly labelled as a ‘PolyRock’. There was even a Birotron — a sort of Mellotron‑like instrument based around 8‑track catridge tapes, and the result of a collaboration between Rick Wakeman and Dave Biro. This was allegedly once owned by Chris Franke of Tangerine Dream fame.
Upstairs, synthesizer band Node (and others) were preparing a suitably electronic inaugural concert, and the assembled enthusiasts, journalists, and musicians were treated to music, conversation, and a grand day out. I spotted Mark Shreeve being initiated into the finer points of a PPG Waveterm, and Nick Magnus had taken time off from recording his follow‑up to his excellent Straight On Till Morning album to attend. The Mellotron Archive UK were demonstrating that tape technology still lives on, and took great delight in showing Bob Moog their instruments. Bob gave me the impression that he would love to get out a soldering iron and start tinkering there and then!
Some of the hi‑tech music contingent present this day included: Mike Barnes, a synthesist currently demonstrating the Emu Morpheus (a collectable synth of the future, perhaps?); Paul Wiffen, the thinking musician’s sampler expert; Steve ‘Mr Soft’ Wright; and Philip Rees, the MIDI accessory manufacturer. There were lots of very knowledgeable people showing others how to drive the instruments, and quite a few music journalists attempting to look unfazed by it all. Keyfax author and musician Julian Colbeck (see main story) was probably one of the few people there who could reasonably be expected to be familiar with a large proportion of the instruments. I knew my way around about half the collection, which astonished me! It took me back to the days when I used to demonstrate synthesizers at the London Synthesizer Centre in the late 1970s.
Upstairs, on the ground floor, synthesizer specialists Synthology were displaying a few of their more unusual instruments — like an Oberheim ‘Banana’, and a grey, metal cased ARP 2600. The walls here were covered in album covers, advertising literature, and other ‘analogue synthesizer’ printed material. This was also where Martin Newcomb was to be found, persuading the visitors to purchase a copy of his excellent book covering the Museum’s contents. The stated aims of the Museum are ‘to preserve, restore, and promote a wider interest in the history and development of analogue musical instruments’ — and judging by the contents of the Museum, I could certainly take several weeks off and totally indulge myself. Viewing is by appointment only, but a series of sample CDs featuring the contents of the Museum is planned.
It was wonderful immersing myself once again in the world of the 60s and 70s. The Museum is a superb resource for anyone seriously interested in the development of synthesis, and I wish it every success in the future.
The Museum of Synthesizer Technology itself is located in a large, square‑shaped room built primarily underground, but opening out into a sort of tunnel hewn out of the garden area, which overlooks sweeping cornfields of English countryside.
Though not completely ‘studio dead’ acoustically, the walls are insulated, and draped with folded black curtains to soak up extraneous noise. Lighting is almost disco in its intensity and profusion!
Instruments are grouped by company, for the most part each group’s audio being fed into a small Soundcraft submixer, whose outputs in turn feed the main 32‑channel desk and control room area situated in the centre of the Museum. Each of these sections also has its own monitoring via powered monitor speakers.
Such a system allows visitors to both play and listen to each instrument in turn within its own instrument section, or for those hiring the Museum as a studio to send signals direct to the main console and Alesis ADAT digital recording facilities.
Guest of honour at the July 29th opening day celebrations was synth pioneer Robert Moog, who unveiled a plaque commemorating the establishment of the Museum of Synthesizer Technology before reminiscing about the early days to JULIAN COLBECK.
In your wildest dreams, did you ever think that synthesizers would come to this when you started?
“No, we didn’t think much of anything. Everything we did, we did for the fun of it. We had no idea where it would go. It’s different now. Back then you could build hardware on the kitchen table. Now it is much harder. But you can do software on the kitchen table! If you are an amateur today, computer systems are the places to work.”
Everything seems very marketing led nowadays. How was it when you started?
“We worked with musicians, one to one. It all started when one musician asked if I knew anything about electronic music. Out of that arose the idea for these modular systems. But back in the late Sixties this sort of equipment was not regarded as musical instruments; it was considered professional audio equipment for use in the studio.”
What made you think otherwise?
“Musicians. We got requests to design instruments they could carry around and play on the gig. I said ‘Play? This is studio equipment.’ But they said, ‘No, no. We want something with a keyboard… that we can set up, do a three‑hour session with and walk out.’ That was the beginning of the Minimoog. Once that was designed, we showed it at the NAMM show. It was a bit strange for the dealers to comprehend back then. No‑one thought that equipment with knobs and patchcords, and words like oscillator and filter written on them, would sell to musicians. If they didn’t understand it, how could musicians? But musicians understood it real fast.”
When did keyboard control come into play?
“At the beginning — the keyboard was always one of many possible options. The keyboard supplied the control voltage, which changed the pitch and set the sound off. But other devices could do the same thing — ribbon controllers, buttons, switches, doorbells… The synthesizer keyboard became commercially important only when musicians tried to play conventional music on it. It has remained important since then.”
With MIDI, do you think these and other controllers have the chance to make a comeback?
“Definitely. There is an unending variety of controllers — not just wind, guitar, drum, but also things that have no counterpart in conventional music, as in the Theremin. There’s no end of controllers you can think of.”
The design philosophy behind analogue can come back: continuous variables, complete open‑ended flexibility. You don’t have that with sampling instruments, with ‘canned’ sounds. Maybe they’re good but they’re still canned.
Walter Carlos was obviously a very important figure in the development of the synthesizer in general, and Moog in particular. I often wonder whether, because of his skill and musicianship, people thought that synths could do more than they actually could at the time.
“That’s not exactly the way we thought about it. We recognised that Carlos had a unique talent and that the music that came out was a result of his unique talent, and that the instrument was just a tool for manifesting that talent.”
Did Carlos work with you on the design of Moog instruments?
“Yes, Carlos always had ideas. Every time we visited him we got instructions, ideas to do things.”
How healthy is it to look back like we are doing currently with this whole ‘retro’ movement?
“Looking back connects us with the thoughts and the approaches… the human part of all this. People didn’t build these things by following some formula out of an engineering book. People responded to the musical needs and desires of musicians. I’m very much a believer in the network of the imagination. A lot of us thought of the same thing at roughly the same time, like Don Buchla and myself. We were on the network. I can’t be more specific than that. Ideas became available and we responded to them. This museum is evidence of that.”
Is analogue’s place only historical or does it have a future?
“The design philosophy behind analogue can come back: continuous variables, complete open‑ended flexibility. You don’t have that with sampling instruments, with ‘canned’ sounds. Maybe they’re good but they’re still canned. They’ll always be the same, you can’t fine tune. The big thing about analogue synthesizers, with all these knobs, was that everything was accessible. All you had to do is reach up and turn a knob. And that gave you the ability to be a real‑time instrument designer and sound designer, as well as a performing musician.”
Does it depress you that keyboard players are now so much purveyors of presets, of static sounds? Does it spoil it for you?
“No, nothing really spoils it. Taking the long view, the stuff that’s not musically valid, that has minimal musical interest does not last; it just goes into the garbage pail. When the musical need arises for fluidity, and multi‑dimensional control, then musicians will respond.”
How did musicians respond to something like the Moog 3C?
“Someone like Carlos would immediately respond. The hands would be going, turning the knobs. Immediately he’d understand what to do. Other musicians would freeze, would freak out. What you find in general is that every knob on the 3C has some musical meaning. And this may occur to you in the first 10 seconds, or maybe it would take a couple of weeks, or a couple of months, to really figure it out. You begin to think of changing sounds. One knob would turn up vibrato: that’s something you can hear. You don’t have to study an engineering book to hear that. Another knob would change the speed of the vibrato. So this whole device you can think of as something that creates vibrato. It just happens to be called a ‘modulation oscillator’. People got so familiar and so instinctive that by the end of the Sixties they could go into a session and the producer would say ‘Gimme a sound like… a falling asparagus’ and the synthesist’s hands would go like this, and in 10 seconds there would be the sound.”
So was there not the same need as we have today to recreate acoustic sounds?
“No, it began strictly with creation. The first customers were experimental musicians, in universities and private studios. Next were commercial music producers. And this was the first time they could tailor sounds anywhere from a completely conventional sound like a violin, to something completely freaky, or anything in between. They could impart just the right degree of humour or strangeness or familiarity. Only after a lot of records were made did people begin to think — incorrectly as it turned out — of the synthesizer as a recreator of conventional sounds.”