owner: The New England Synthesizer Museum, David Hillel Wilson, Curator
other synths in the New England Synthesizer Museum Collection
(Hey, Donald Buchla... if you're out there, please feel free to send me critiques and corrections. I am often asked about you and I really know so very little. And let me extend that to Wendy Carlos and anyone else whose name I mention. If I've taken your name in vain, please get in my face about it so I can keep these histories accurate! - DHW)
A not-often-enough mentioned fact about Donald Buchla is that heindependently invented the voltage-controlled modular synthesizer at about the same time as Dr. Moog. I asked Moog if Buchla knew of his work and Moog said "No.". The reason that Moog became a household name and Buchla didn't is that Moog's machines were mainstream keyboard instruments, while Buchla did his best to avoid people mistaking his instruments for any existing instrument, to avoid people falling into the trap of using his gear within the limitations of other instruments. (In those early days, people believed that the synthesizer "had no limitations").
It should also be mentioned here that Buchla doesn't like to refer to his instruments as "synthesizers", because the word "synthetic" sort of implies inferiority. After all, it was about this time in history that new man-made synthetic fibers for clothing (Rayon, et al) were coming to market. He prefers to call his machines "Electronic Music Boxes".
To avoid people mistakenly thinking that a synthesizer is limited to 12 notes/octave equal-tempered sound, he made a row of touch plates that were equally spaced, with no discernible "octave" marking. Indeed, looking at the picture, you can see that there are two knobs above each plate. These can be used to set any voltage controllable parameter to any value, one pair of values per "key". You can set up a 12-tone equal-tempered scale, various modes, Just tunings, Wendy Carlos Alpha or Beta scales, or even tune the keys to be out of order (with high notes in the middle and low notes on both ends), or tune them to all play the same note!!!
Needless to say, if you're trying to play Bach, a Buchla might not be your first choice (although maybe for you it might! Don't you just love the artistic freedom a synthesizer can give you?!). Wendy Carlos worked for years with Dr. Moog to make his machines "Bach-friendly", and when Switched-On Bach hit the scene in 1968, the name Moog became a household word; On the other hand, the original Moog company and their biggest competitor - ARP - both went out of business, while Buchla is still around! Go figure...
Anyway, to the piece itself. There are four pairs of output jacks; the top two produce a voltage proportional to the setting on the upper knob above the last key struck. The next pair down produce a voltage proportional to the setting of the lower knob above the last key struck. Thus, each key gives you a pair of voltages which you have absolute control over. The next row produces a voltage proportional to finger pressure on the key, making the Buchla probably the first synthesizer - oops! Electronic Music Boxes - with aftertouch! Finally, the red jacks at the bottom produce a gate signal which goes high if any key is touched, and is probably used to trigger envelope generators, although I can't get any literature on Buchla's modules. (Anyone out there want to send me some?). (I've never powered it up because I don't know the supply voltage or polarity! Help!).------ Dave Wilson