A New Machine


Video & Multimedia

Don Buchla with one of his instruments.

Don Buchla invented some of the first electronic instruments—not synthesizers, he insisted, but electronic instruments. To him, the word synthesizer implied some attempt at emulation, as if these new machines could do nothing more than imitate preexisting sounds. Buchla believed that his inventions offered an aural palette every bit as distinct as a trumpet’s or a clarinet’s. It was only marketing that made listeners hear something derivative in them.

An instrument has to exist long before performance techniques can be developed and a repertoire arises,” he told Keyboard Magazine in the eighties, explaining why there are so few new sounds in the world:

Because of this, the market for the instrument doesn’t exist for many years after the R&D that goes into developing a truly new instrument. With short-term profits a primary motive, the big corporations are simply not interested … When you open up those other possibilities, you’ll alienate the people who are coming from a rock-band orientation and want instant gratification. They don’t want to have to figure out some other relationship between their actions and the instrument’s response. 

Buchla died last week at age seventy-nine. In the early sixties, he invented—independently, but at roughly the same moment as Robert Moog—the voltage-controlled modular synthesizer. You have seen these instruments: they’re hulking contraptions with a seemingly excessive number of wires and knobs, often encountered in the homes of audiophiles, Germans with pencil-thin mustaches, and that one quiet pale kid from your freshman hall.

The difference between Buchla and the more famous Moog was as much conceptual as it was technical. Jon Pareles’s remembrance in the New York Times gets at a key distinction by way of nomenclature:

While the modules of Moog synthesizers had straightforward names out of electrical engineering—oscillators to generate tones, filters to modify them—Mr. Buchla’s instruments had modules with more colorful names, like Multiple Arbitrary Function Generator, Quad Dynamics Manager and, for his random-voltage noise generator, Source of Uncertainty.

Buchla’s design philosophy encouraged uncertainty: he wanted his instruments to help us shed our musical preconceptions. In a great interview with Polyphony Magazine, he said, “We’re tradition bound … Music as we know it is rooted in a great deal of tradition, and is resistant to change on many levels: the instrumental, the performance, and the listening levels … I’d like to investigate the sonic experience in a very general way.”

His friend Morton Subotnick, an avant-garde musician who commissioned the first Buchla machine, conducted exactly those sorts of investigations. And investigations feels like the only apt word; it explains why compositions like “The Wild Bull” still have the dangerous, bumptious air of the frontier about them, decades later:

Subotnick remembered Bucha in a conversation with the Guardian’s Geeta Dayal this week: “He invented a whole new paradigm for how you interface with electronics—much more human, and a whole new thing … I put an ad in the paper and he showed up. We wanted to make a new machine.”

Short of getting your hands on one of these instruments and embarking on your own sonic explorations, there may be only one way to grapple with the magnitude and beauty of Buchla’s inventions: read the manuals.

Lucky for you, the complete Buchla Electronic System Users Manual is in the public domain for your perusal. So go on, peruse it!

There. Wasn’t that fun? Now that you know everything there is to know about the Model 158 Dual Sine-Sawtooth Oscillator, here is, courtesy of David Morley, a demonstration of the Buchla 200 doing what it does best: making an enticing, beguiling series of bleepy-bloopy noises. I’m not saying that to be flip. I love those bloops.

Dan Piepenbring is the web editor of The Paris Review.