Analog Modular Synthing:
Becoming a Krell Musician - An Autobiographical Patch
by Mark J Bradlyn
Mark J Bradlyn is an electronic musician and folk music performer and singer/songwriter. In 1972 he used the Moog 3-P system at Florida State University to create an electronic soundtrack for the Astro Theater planetarium show at the Neil Armstrong Air and Space Museum in Ohio. Two of his electronic pieces have been recently released on the Drone Muzic label. His first independent folk CD, Outside the Family Way, is available from Mockingbird Books. A new folk CD, Lighthouse Keeper, will be released in late October.
For me the most beautiful thing about a modular synthesizer is the way anyone can start making wild and beautiful sounds instantly. All it takes is one patch cord to plug an oscillator into an amplifier, add a bit of reverb or delay, twiddle the oscillator frequency and the amp volume and voila, instant 50s sci-fi soundtrack. With two oscillators and two patch cords you enter Bebe and Louis Barron land where you can start going crazy on the surface of your own Forbidden Planet, add a filter module and one more patch cord and you're set free into limitless Daliesque sonic landscapes. And you don't need a piano-style keyboard. When it's sound your after, those black and whites just get in the way. And it's definitely sound we're after here, not notes. Sound is what analog modular synthesis is all about.
Electronically generated sounds first captured my ears when my cub scout den mother took her brood of rambunctious little boys to see Forbidden Planet in 1957. This science fiction movie was the first feature length film to use an all-electronic score. At one point in the movie the film's villain, Dr. Morbeus, played by Walter Pidgeon, plays a recording of million-year-old electronic music created by musicians from an ancient but highly evolved culture known as the Krell. I didn't know what these Krell sounds were or how they were made, but I loved them even as they raised goosebumps on my arms. Their meaning was obvious to me: the hoped-for, sparkling, synthetic future of Disney's Tomorrowland. I could hardly wait for the day when I would live in this perfect world and this music would surround me. I had no idea that I would someday be making it myself.
One day in 1962 my high school history teacher set up his record player, pulled down the shades in his classroom, turned off the lights and told us to close our eyes and listen to the music of the future. The record he played for us was Edgar Varese's "Poeme Electronique." That day a large portion of my musical fate was sealed. I went out in search of records of electronic music in the local San Antonio music stores, but found nothing.
So I was thrilled to read in the newspaper in 1965 that pioneer electronic music composer Vladimir Ussachevsky would be giving a lecture. That evening was one the most important musical moments of my teenage years. Ussachevky, grey-haired and impressive, stood at a podium on the stage at Trinity University flanked by two large loudspeakers. He lectured for half-hour or so in a wonderful Russian accent about the new technology of electronic musical sound, then told us he would now play a tape for us of his recent works. He cautioned the audience that the sounds we were about to hear sometimes frightened people who were not used to such sonorities, and that we should not worry if we felt as if we wanted to leave the auditorium; he would not be offended. He walked over to the table where his tape deck was placed and pressed the "play" switch. In a few minutes a few people actually did walk out.
But I was instantly transported once again to the future world I wanted to live in. The sounds were utterly fascinating, whatever this "music" was, it was anything but frightening to me. It felt like home: delightful, strange, odd, evanescent, and even sexual. I now understand that the oddly moving sonic assemblages I heard that night carried with them the aura of the forbidden and subversive, the same as some of the stranger comic books I sometimes read, or the stories of Richard Matheson. This was music that spoke directly to the inchoate needs of my late adolescent soul. Overwhelmed with reality, I was hungry for weirdness and abstraction, and this new musical language fed me in ways I'd never imagined.
Stranded in the San Antonio suburbs, however, there was no way for me to find a means to begin exploring this marvelous new sound continent I'd glimpsed. But I was very lucky in that I owned a stereo tape recorder, and it wasn't long before I was experimenting with tape echoes and loops and tape speed manipulations.
One day at a thrift shop in 1968 I found a small rectangular aluminum box with several black plastic chickenhead knobs on top and 1/4 phone jacks at either end. I didn't know what it was, but it looked something like an audio mixer to me, so I bought it and brought it home, not knowing what I might use it for. Out of pure curiosity I patched it between the output and input to my tape recorder, and to my immediate astonishment and delight, a continuous raspy tone emerged from the recorder's speaker. I turned the plastic knobs and, hey, the pitch of the sound changed. I could hardly believe my luck: by connecting this mysterious device to my tape deck, I'd somehow created an oscillator! To this day I don't know what that box was, but that lucky moment was the beginning of playing with pure electronic sound for me. I was a long way from Ilhan Mimaroglou (I'm still a long way from Ilhan Mimaroglu), but I was on my way.
In the spring of 1971 I was living in Cambridge, Massachusetts where I finally got my hands on a Moog modular synthesizer by taking a workshop at Bob Ceely's Boston Electronic Music Project studio. The modular synthesizer made perfect sense to me from the very first. The basic linearity of the system made making sounds so simple. And the fact that the modular synth with at least three oscillators is inherently and simply polysonic - that is, complex musical structures that involve more than one simultaneous sound event are easy to program - revealed itself quickly.
If you do not find yourself restricted by the idea that pressing a key on a keyboard means playing a certain note, then there's no need to complain, as keyboard players sometimes did, that early modular synths were strictly monophonic instruments. Although pressing a key can certainly make an oscillator output a specific pitch, it can also do many other things. It can trigger an envelope generator to create an envelope shape that controls an amplifier's gain parameters, the slope of a filter, the frequency of a low frequency oscillator, the filter cut off frequency or "Q", the rate of a clock, the direction of a sequencer, or any number of other discrete parameters far beyond the prosaic pitch of an oscillator. Delaying these voltages, inverting them, slowing them, and then using these other versions of the same voltage to control other modules can result in a polysonic event that has nothing to do with whether the key you've pressed is middle C or anything else.
It was partly Robert Moog's design decision to use a standard keyboard controller that contributed heavily to the pianistic conceptual and performance approach to synthesizers. As has been often pointed out, West Coast synthesizer designer Don Buchla was not drawn to the keyboard aesthetic, but instead developed touch sensitive plates as DC control voltage sources. One has only to compare Wendy Carlos' "Switched-on Bach" with Morton Subotnick's "Touch" to appreciate the difference between these two approaches to instrument design and the sorts of music each instrument made possible at the time.
When I finally discovered Serge Modular in the early 1980s, the digital synth revolution was beginning. Friends could not understand why I would want a synth without a keyboard. It was difficult to convey to them the fact that the keyboard controlled synthesizer was only one approach to electronic music creation. They couldn't seem to see that electronic sounds could be created without recourse to black and white keys. They simply wanted to play chords and melodies, and it was obvious to them that a Serge system with its 16 touch plates was not the way they wanted to go about doing that. They also wondered why I would want to spend time patching modules together to create sounds, when they could push a button on their Prophet-5 and dial up any number of pre-programmed pads and lead voices. They also were puzzled by the inherent unreproducibility of complex modular patches.
Yet it is the marvelously ephemeral and sensual nature of modular synthesis that holds the greatest attraction for me. And because I've always found the piano to be a counter-intuitive instrument, a black and white keyboard holds little meaning to me. I like the physical manipulation of raw sounds in real time, whether that involves strings and frets or plugs, knobs, and wires. Also, I find the process of patching inherently entrancing. I'm always amazed at how quickly the panels of my Serge system become nearly hidden behind a webwork of brightly colored patch cords. More than one person has told me that when I'm enthralled in the fun of creating a patch I look like a mad scientist. I like hearing that. It means that my boyhood desire for a fantastic scientific future has at least in this one way come true. When I'm patching up a soundscape, I become a Krell musician, an artist and craftsperson of the far beyond.
My inherently sentimental and flow-oriented creative style is right at home with a modular synthesizer system with all of its quirky surprises and unreproducibilities. No matter how completely I may manage to notate a complex patch - I think of a complex patch as one that uses 12 or more patch cords - I have never been able to repatch it and get exactly the same results. The difficulty lies in the complex interweaving of audio and control voltages. The beauty of analog AC voltages lies in their fluidity. They are waves, not create discrete, quantized outputs. I suppose by using voltage meters I could laboriously discover each module's exact output and notate it for future reference, but that would take the fun and spontaneity away. What it comes down to, really, is that I'm not all that interested in reproducibility anyway. It's the process of exploring and discovery that keeps me patching away. If I come up with something that interests me enough to keep, I'll tape it. If not, I'll tear down the patch and start over.
Robert Ceely titled his Boston electronic music workshops "Sculpting With Sound," and that concept has always seemed to me the most appropriate metaphor for how I use an analog modular system. I'm a sculptor who uses basic electronically generated waveforms as my medium. I imagine that's how the Krell did it, too. Is it music? Does it matter? I don't know. I only know that making music with the Krell is some of the most fun I have ever had.