Don Buchla

We're used to seeing some pretty great minds front and centre of our beloved Academy, but few of our feted couch surfers can touch Don Buchla when it comes to sheer brain power. A true pioneer in the field of electronic music, Don started producing his first synthesizers in the ‘60s, months after a certain Robert Moog, though it is highly probable his designs left the drawing room well before dear Bob's. In this heavy-going session at the 2007 Red Bull Music Academy it may be an effort to stay the course though you may well learn something. Don is kept on message by our very own astroboy, Dr. Torsten Schmidt.

Hosted by Torsten Schmidt Audio Only Version Transcript:

Don Buchla

I’m an instrument designer and I sometimes present the instruments and sometimes play them. On occasions of both these types I haven’t been able to bring my instruments into this country. I didn’t even try today, I brought a few things to show you, but no instruments. Sorry about that, but I have had them confiscated at immigration and been turned back and I have been requested to put up $10.000, which I actually succeeded in doing at the Canadian border. So that would explain, I hope, my reluctance to bring instruments in.

RBMA

Let me just get this right. You build something, it is your own design, you did it with your own hands and then some bureaucratic ponce is like: “Oh no, you can’t bring this in”? So what do you do then?

Don Buchla

We play it by ear.

RBMA

Which meant?

Don Buchla

We improvised with whatever I’m allowed to bring in. They allowed me to bring in my computer this time because they are so common, everybody has a laptop. So I snuck in some pictures on the computer and we’ll have to content ourselves with pictures.

RBMA

At previous incidents in the past you’ve been touring with all these people and providing them with equipment as well, what happened when you had your touring stuff there?

Don Buchla

I was allowed in on that occasion. I didn’t tour with Sun Ra, we happened to be on the same bill and we were on the same plane, in fact, going in and they didn’t allow him in. They asked for $50.000, which he couldn’t put up. And they asked for $10.000 for me and my sponsor put me up, the Canadian sponsors, because they knew about that game and they had it all ready to go.

RBMA

So did you ever have to physically let go of things that you had with you?

Don Buchla

Yes, in Vancouver I was stopped last year and I was told that I couldn’t simply bring them in. And I was driving so I took them back across the border and I stored them.

RBMA

I wouldn’t feel very comfortable with those kind of things in a storage room somewhere?

Don Buchla

No, I didn’t either, I worried about it constantly and prayed that they were all intact when I got back.

RBMA

I guess, it’s pretty fair to say what you’re most known for is to think outside of the box and ironically create a box which did exactly that. Now, can you tell us a little bit about what the Buchla Box was or actually is, the first one?

Don Buchla

The first one is a modular system in which we have modules that control various aspects of sound depending on the module. And these are wired together and knobs are set according to the composers preference and they are often played in real time performance environments.

RBMA

Just to get a better picture, what time are we talking?

Don Buchla

This was in the ‘60s. ’63 until about ’69 or ’70.

RBMA

But with the Buchla Box we are already talking about a pretty highly sophisticated device.

Don Buchla

Well, that was developed in 1970. CBS funded my efforts there and we developed a modular system that had the same dimensions as the original, but new capabilities. Then, in 2003, after we had long abandoned the 200 series, as we called that one, we introduced the 200e, which differs from the 200 in that it had preset storage so that you could store and make a configuration with all the knob settings. And that preset would be restored and on proper command could be named and saved and restored as a result of a pulse or an addressing action. And you could store to about 50 presets for a particular concert.

RBMA

But up until the stage, where you were able to include all these different designs into one box, I mean, that’s not the way you started out, being that there was no particular model that you could follow on from. It’s not like today where you go: “Oh yeah, I want to model something like that and I want to program something that follows this example.” You were starting out with much more simple, basic technology when it was about the idea, or in another way, when did you think about the possibility within creating sound electronically, not to use the word artificially?

Don Buchla

Well, that was with the beginning in 1963, roughly. Actually, before then I had done electronic sounds, but it was mostly with the aid of the tape recorder. I was known as a tape composer.

RBMA

So tape composing in essence is the great grandfather of sampling, I guess?

Don Buchla

Yeah, it goes back a long way. They worked on synthesis at that time, there was the Mark 4 at RCA and much earlier instruments, which we’ll take a look at, I have some pictures of them.

RBMA

Were there any particular moments, I don’t know, during Orson Welles’ War Of The Worlds or something where you thought, ‘Oh, there’s something else to sounds than just a symphonic orchestra’? An initial key moment where you went: “Whoa, that’s what I want to do”?

Don Buchla

I knew that pretty early, even in my sounds concréte, as we say, I was using a tape recorder to create unheard of before sounds because you played them backwards and spliced them in strange ways and so on.

RBMA

What age were you when you were doing these tape recordings?

Don Buchla

About 20 or 22.

RBMA

And one thing that always surprised me when you talk about this phase of the Stockhausen and all the French people and so on, is that contrary to, let’s say yesterday we had this guy from London in here, who is 21-years old and he’s already a veteran of the scene, and when you go back to that time you see a load of people, who are already very mature and very intricate in what they are doing. It really seems like it was a serious, honest man’s occupation to create artificial music?

Don Buchla

I don’t agree with the seriousness of it.

RBMA

It looked serious on the pictures.

Don Buchla

I had a lot of fun in those days, still do. We were hanging out with the Grateful Dead and Ken Kesey and the Acid Test and all the tripsters of the ‘60s and we had a lot of fun.

RBMA

Well, I guess all we know of that is, yeah, the Ken Kesey’s and the Tom Wolfe’s describing it all. The interesting thing there as well is, if we jump in time, you had all these people in San Fran[cisco] being involved. First of all, what was the Acid Test?

Don Buchla

They occurred at about ’65 and ’66. I’m not good at dates and I could be off.

RBMA

Less than the actual date, you walked into what kind of door and what did you see?

Don Buchla

They were very usually in lofts of one kind or another, I remember one was in a very well appointed opium den. The nature of the Acid Test was most of the participants dropped acid, as we say.

RBMA

And how did you guys get in contact with the invention by some weird middle European scientist? The Albert Hofmann’s and the guys who synthesized it?

Don Buchla

We were very much in contact with those people.

RBMA

But it was a slightly different approach than the one that Timothy Leary took?

Don Buchla

I don’t know that one.

RBMA

Well, in the Electric Kool Aid Acid Test Tom Wolfe also writes about you, he literally name drops it, the Buchla Box, can you elaborate a little bit? If we were jumping in a time machine right now and we close our eyes and we are opening them again and we are here. We are there at the Acid Test, what do we see?

Don Buchla

Well, you might not see me because I tended to hide out in the corner because I had a lot of speakers to control and you’d hear screaming and mad, lunatic fringe sound.

RBMA

It was created all within that one thing?

Don Buchla

Yeah.

RBMA

But at that time you already had other jobs as well, which were very far apart from the counter culture, probably as far apart as you can be?

Don Buchla

I guess so. I worked a lot for NASA over the years. When I needed some bread I worked for NASA.

RBMA

What did you do for NASA then?

Don Buchla

First, at that time I was building computers for supportable flight, and they never flew, but it was interesting to build computers that couldn’t be destructed by cosmic rays, essentially. And then I got into physiology and I observed high altitude balloons flying across Canada and recovered them and checked out the yeast permutations. The yeast is very high, you can get several generations in one flight across Canada. So we watched these very high altitude balloons in New Foundland, tracked them by radio and small planes, picked them up sometimes in the Pacific, but usually in the forests of Eastern and Western Canada. And then later, I worked on various projects after the navigation visibility problems that they encountered with the spaceship.

RBMA

My dad had kind of a similar background, but just on a way lower scale working near to military and a lot of the things he explained to me as a kid, like how radar works and all these things are very, very close to synthesis, really. It’s kind of ironic to realise you’ve got like the San Francisco counter culture of the ‘60s there and all the things that provided all that fun, from mobile phones and computers and stuff, are still so highly dependent on military technology funding, really.

Don Buchla

That’s true, but we’re close to Silicon Valley and NASA has a huge centre there and I have an office there and we have embarrassingly little compared to the military in terms of research.

RBMA

You at some stage got a $500 grant as well, I understand?

Don Buchla

That was to build the first one, it cost a great deal more than that but Rockefeller did give me $500 to build the first synthesizer.

RBMA

And that’s not Jay-Z Roc-A-Fella, that’s the original Rockefeller?

Don Buchla

I don’t know, the Rockefeller Foundation.

RBMA

So what were you actually aiming to do with it? What did it say on the form that you had to fill out to get this grant?

Don Buchla

I didn’t fill out the form, I didn’t get the grant directly. The San Francisco Tape Music Center instituted by Ramon Sender and Morton Subotnick gave me the $500 and it was from the Rockefeller money, which was a great deal more than that, I don’t even know how much.

RBMA

They talk about $30.000, but whatever, those kind of sums don’t really mean much today in terms of comparison anyway. This Tape Centre seems to be a very significant institution. Could you enlighten us a bit about what it was and what happened there?

Don Buchla

Well, they sponsored concerts and sponsored a lot of new music. I walked into a concert one day, I was going to the concerts on a regular basis and very timidly walked up to Mort Subotnick and asked him if I could look at his studio and he said: “Fine, come on up.” So I went up and checked it out. There were three tape recorders and I was very invasive. They are having three, I had a single track, which I did all my work on. So I started working in the studio and I observed. They had techniques for constructing electronic music and constructing studio production tapes, but they depended entirely on bomb sites and Hewlett Packard oscillators and left over equipment from this and that. I suggested they use electronics to build an intentional instrument, one designed for electronics and that was a bit unheard of in those days. So I proceeded to nab their $500 and started the construction of a synthesizer.

RBMA

What was the actual device that you built out of that called?

Don Buchla

It was called the modular 100 series synthesizer. It had the San Francisco Tape Music Center on the bottom. The original one is still at Bill’s college. They’ve been offered $50.000 for it, but they wouldn’t take it.

RBMA

It’s basically a ring modulator, if I understand correctly?

Don Buchla

No, it’s a lot of different modules, ring modulation is one of several process.

RBMA

You had a bit of a hand in making the design for a ring modulator a lot easier?

Don Buchla

Yes, yes.

RBMA

So how did that come about?

Don Buchla

I just built a good, balanced modulator from my knowledge. I never studied electronics, but I picked up a lot of it just building my own projects with NASA.

RBMA

So, if I was going to my mum and going: “Look, I’ve got this crazy ring modulator,” and she’s like: “And, what does it do?” What do I tell her?

Don Buchla

You should demonstrate it.

RBMA

And what would happen?

Don Buchla

You would get all kinds of strange, ring-modulated sounds.

RBMA

How would that sound?

Don Buchla

I can’t hum a tune.

RBMA

Another interesting thing in that era of producing sound is also how technology was taken from all different places. Like, downstairs, for example, we have a limiter compressor thing, which uses photo cell and I understand that you guys were using a lot of that early photo technology as well in creating sounds?

Don Buchla

In some cases, yes.

RBMA

First moment one would think, what does lightning have to do with sound? Can you explain a little bit about what the uses for a photo cell would be in the creation of sound?

Don Buchla

Well, Lightning came much later and that’s an optical length, for which you need a transmitter consisting of an LED and a receptor consisting of a silicon diode. What you’re talking about may be the technique that we used in the early gates, and we still do use this technique. And that’s an optic coupler, which uses and LED and a cadmium selenide cell closely coupled, just that far apart.

RBMA

So how do we have to envision this? Is this happening with loads of guys in white suits and big masks and everything is dust-free, or what’s the setting that you worked in?

Don Buchla

It’s not even as clean as this room.

RBMA

So a lot closer to repairing an old car?

Don Buchla

Possibly, yeah.

RBMA

Or maybe soldering the radio for the car?

Don Buchla

We had modern instruments to help develop things.

RBMA

You are still more or less tinkering around, more or less a hobbyist level, right?

Don Buchla

No, I’ve never been much of a hobbyist.

RBMA

How would you paraphrase it?

Don Buchla

I developed relatively sophisticated designs and think about them and model them until I’m happy with the design. Then I design it and usually the first take is the production model. I’ll design up a panel and that’s some of the designs I created in the ‘70s are still being built and they were originally designed for use, for production. We didn’t have time to go through a lot of prototype stages.

RBMA

So when we talk in the baby days of analogue synthesis and its use for musicians, it’s always interesting how these days people on opposite ends of the world might be doing similar things. And obviously, there were other people researching similar ways of creating art, electric sounds in other parts of America too. When did you hear first about the others?

Don Buchla

Perhaps in about ’68 I heard of Moog and he had his first synthesizers out almost at the same time as I did. One of us, myself, working with the West Coast aesthetic and Robert Moog was working out the East Coast, a totally different aesthetic, but strangely we built very, very similar modules. But the connection philosophy was quite different.

RBMA

Did you view each other as competition?

Don Buchla

Initially, I think, yes. But we became good friends and merged many of our operations and so on. I designed some Moog equipment, in fact, much later. We ignored each other for about ten years.

RBMA

At that stage, when you were both working on those similar, same things but with very different approach, there was no industry yet to speak of and there was no clear indication that there was any money to be made from it, was there?

Don Buchla

No, it’s always been for me a fringe activity that I needed to go to work for others, including NASA and sometimes other synthesizer manufacturers, to design for them and earn my keep.

RBMA

So you both came out with your first [synthesizer], relatively together almost within a year. Given the speed of the time and the mediation of events then it was almost at the same time, I take it. Could you probably explain the pretty fundamental differences in the approach, which will lead us to your main subject, I guess, which is the interface of human / machine interaction?

Don Buchla

Let’s see. I think the primary difference in our approaches is that I separated audio signals from control signals and, in fact, used two different kind of quartz, even in my present synthesizers. Robert Moog used what we now call balanced modulators, ring modulator and use it as a gate because of the convert break down to DC. He could take an audio oscillator and program it to be a sub-audio oscillator, in which case it turned into the control, which could be used for something else. My systems didn’t have this capability, but that was because I wanted the highest performance possible. I wanted the ring modulators to have very low leakage and very high signal noise and so on, and it couldn’t work as a gate because it would have offsets and so on. With signals you have to have a zero reference and they have to oscillate above that reference and with control voltages you have a different range, from zero to somewhere. That range is totally different in our two systems. Moog had to jack up the signals so that there was no headroom, but the system that I was working with required headroom, so they would be relatively small. They might be two volts in amplitude, but they could go up to 20 volts in amplitude so there are these differences and the controls for each are quite different. The input levels for an audio signal are controlled by pots that have what’s known as exponential or audio tapers and the controls on Moog’s equipment were linear. There are disadvantages to making them all in one, there are some other disadvantages, too, one of them being a simple conceptual disadvantage because when you are looking at a complex patch you are looking at a lot of wires. So if you can tell which ones are handling signals and which ones are handling control voltage, you are really one up on it.

RBMA

Can you give us an idea of what a cabinet of a modular system, what the size of it was at that stage?

Don Buchla

A cabinet was about three modules, about that high, each module was 7” high and it would be a multiple of 4 and a 1/4” wide, 4 and a 1/4" being a sub division of 17, which is the width that fits in a 19” rack, which why nobody ever used rack mounted systems. That’s what I chose, 4 and a 1/4" by 7 as the format and that was chosen in 1963 and the same format we use even currently.

RBMA

And how many sounds would you get out of a complex patch of that size?

Don Buchla

A great number of sounds.

RBMA

But at one time?

Don Buchla

You may use overdubbing, but you have an awful lot of sound at one time. It could be used in live performance without the aid of tape or digital processing or anything. If you listen to Morton Subotnick’s earlier work, Silver Apples Of The Moon is the first one commissioned and made in approximately 1966, I believe, and uses not very much overdubbing, if any. He used two Revox’s, one of them had a broken channel and wouldn’t record and the other one was a pretty intact one, but he didn’t have much means or resources to do tape bouncing or anything like that.

RBMA

Another interesting aspect of your take on it was that it also included a sequencer in an early form. If you want to go even further, maybe it was even the grandfather of the MPC, as we like it? In what ways?

Don Buchla

Well, I didn’t think of that, I thought of the sequencer in 16 stages where you could eliminate 16 tape splices. I was still into that tape thing, and it had four levels and that was about it, and people started using it more for rhythmic things. Terry Riley made great use of the sequencer in his early tapes and soon it became how the current sequencer is now. We don’t think of it as a replacement of a tape, but rather of the rhythmic elements of music.

RBMA

Were there any other devices that you would consider a sequencer before that?

Don Buchla

No, I don’t think so. Other than simple tape splicing. Voltage control was the new important aspect. If you didn’t have voltage control, you couldn’t make an oscillator jump instantaneously to different frequencies. You had to turn a knob, and the alternative was to make a tape of it and cut the tape. I visited this one day at Princeton laboratory. In fact, built all three or four of their original studios, and they had reels and reels of tape across the top, and if you wanted half a second of E flat, you’d chop off a section of E flat. It’d be about that long, and they did this thing called intricate taping and assemblage of little pieces of tape and made quite a few compositions from this extra tape that was already pre-recorded at certain very precise frequencies. These pieces were very much in tune because they used laboratory sine wave oscillators to make a tape full of C sharp or something. It was amazing. There’s a good story about that, they took three of my synthesizers and made identical labs out of them for the graduates, so one could move from one lab to the other and find an identical array of equipment. With one exception, one lab was reserved for faculty and graduate students and the others undergraduates could come into. But Vladimir Ussachesvsky covered one of the modules that I had made in the faculty lab and that was the big random voltage source. The ”source of uncertainty“, as they called it then, and it made white noise and random voltages in truly complex ways. But he didn’t want any randomness in the music from the grad students and often the undergrad students, so he taped that over so they couldn’t get at it.

RBMA

Probably, just to stress that again, because it’s a term most of us are familiar with, when we see it on so many plug-in’s and on boxes, like white noise, pink noise, and I love the fact that you really dubbed it the "source of uncertainty".

Don Buchla

Yeah, because it combined the random. Again, it’s a problem with the Moog approach because the white noise isn’t very useful as a random voltage. So you had fluctuating random voltages, which you can vary the probable speed of and pulsed random voltages, where we sampled them and so on. The modern stuff gets into all kinds of distributions and shapes. White noise is actually the kind that we’re normally hearing is not white, and it’s kind of tricky circuit-wise to make what I call flat noise. The solar system has flat noise, it has plus 3db noise, we call it, that’s what you know as white noise. It’s actually +3db in term of energy per octave and then we have -3db, which sounds like a bassy white noise. It’s actually easier to generate, but the flat noise is the most difficult to make. I think we’re the only ones to have incorporated flat noise into our systems. It’s also the best one to filter because you get equal bass and treble and the noise that we’re used to as white noise is very orientated towards the treble.

RBMA

I guess, that you are very aware, especially amongst the nerds of the word of like: “Oh, there’s this approach and that approach,” but you guys were kind of interacting as well. Can you explain the different thoughts behind the keyboard concept and your take on it, as far as controlling those noises and sounds and uncertainties?

Don Buchla

The keyboard, at that time I was certainly interested in it and I had a piano background, but it spoke to me and it said these are pitches and you’d better use them as pitches. And I didn’t want to use them as pitches so I had to build alternative keyboards, simply because I didn’t want them to look like the very familiar black and white. So I think that just that psychological take on the keyboard was enough to turn me in another direction.

RBMA

Speaking of psychology, when the keyboard as we know it was first created and modeled on the cembalo and all that in the 16th century, it was a pretty deliberate effort as well to go for the well-tuned piano, it was already a compromise in itself. Was that part of the counter culture approach, rebelling?

Don Buchla

It wasn’t rebelling, I simply didn’t want to use it, that was my privilege. I like keyboards, I play them, I listen to them. I still do.

RBMA

Some of your best friends…

Don Buchla

Some of my best friends are keyboard players.

RBMA

What other means did you employ then, other than the keyboard?

Don Buchla

Well, I built touch sensitive surfaces, which are in a sense keyboards. We often call them keyboards, but they responded to touch and location and movement and things like that.

RBMA

Did you hold patents for these things?

Don Buchla

No, no. In fact, I did just the opposite, I freely distributed its grammatics for anyone who wanted to attempt to build one.

RBMA

So, have you seen any of the recent things where you can just touch stuff on screen?

Don Buchla

Yeah, recently controllers are coming around to things like the Lemur, it’s a good example of a new controller. You don’t have much dynamic range with it, but it’s interesting to move these objects and place them and have them accessible at performance time.

RBMA

I understand you prepared a couple of pictures there to show us different takes on the idea of the controlling surface. Would you probably take us through them?

Don Buchla

Sure. (presentation begins) This is called the Musical Telegraph,ElishaGray invented this. I believe it’s the first electric keyboard synthesizer, it was built in 1870. Elisha Gray, for those that don’t know, was the actual inventor of the telephone. Alexander Graham Bell beat him to the patent office by about one day and is therefore known as the inventor of the telephone, went on to start a company and made a lot of money. Elisha Gray was left to apply his technology to building the keyboard synthesizer and that’s it. No known recordings of this exist.Speaker:

RBMA

Do you know how many of these items are still around?

Don Buchla

There were, I think, just two or three of these things built and there's certainly one, because someone took a picture of one (laughs).

RBMA

But it’s almost like a little Rhodes, right?

Don Buchla

It’s like a tiny Rhodes, yeah. Except that it’s all electric. I don’t know what actually resonated. I think I knew at one time, but I forget what resonated. A Rhodes, as you probably know, is dependent on the tiny tuning forks that have resonant frequencies. This may have been something similar to that. This is based on the telegraph because those coils are essentially telegraph ringers. (next slide) This is the Telharmonium, this came around the turn of the century. This was a monstrous instrument, a most amazing synthesizer. It occupied twelve boxcars when it was relocated from Massachusetts to New York.

RBMA

Boxcars is wagons that you put on a train, right?

Don Buchla

They are big train cars. Twelve of them just to stash this instrument, so it wasn’t exactly portable.

(laughter)

This picture of the inset is some of the wiring behind it and the larger picture. The way this thing works is they had a dynamo varying each pitch and sometime its harmonics, but there are many dynamos, these are large things about this big and they proposed to wire up New York City, which they did. So the reason the dynamos existed is because they had to drive large signals through telephone lines and power crude speakers all over the place, one of which you see there with the big cone. Electronics was not invented at this time so all amplification had to be done by tricky means and there was lots of power consumed and it was very difficult to play the keyboard. It took generally two people, eventually, women would play Mozart sonatas or something. There were always two at the keyboard because it took a great effort to press a key, one had to share the work. Essentially, it’s the first synthesizer and it’s amazing that it was so large. Not a single remain of it has been found. It simply disappeared all 100 tons of it, or something.

RBMA

Any conspiracy theories on where it went?

Don Buchla

No, they just dismantled it shortly after radio tube came into existence, which is right around then, actually, and it became obsolete a couple of years after it was installed. (next slide)This is the Ondes Martenot. It was built, I believe, in the ‘20s and it’s still being in use. The lady in the background is a very skilled Ondes Martenot player and the lady in the foreground is my wife, a very skilled jazz pianist here, becoming acquainted with the Ondes Martenot. There’s seven of them in Paris at the music school there and they are still being taught. It has about four different speakers that are accessed by the left hand here, she’s accessing one of them. One of them is fairly linear, but the others are highly non-linear, one of them being full of sympathetic strings in front of the speakers. And the other being a similar gong-like apparatus that vibrates in fairly uncertain ways and it’s quite an instrument. And also, there’s a thumb that provides glissandi, it can play continuous transitions from one note to another. (next slide) The next one I want to show you is the theremin. I imagine that you’ve all heard of the theremin, maybe not. But this is Leon Theremin playing his instrument, which is played with two hands. One of them controlling pitch and the other the amplitude. The right hand controls the pitch and it’s a straight vertical antenna and the other controls the dynamics, so the closer he is to the sensor, the louder it is. There have been some very skilled players of the theremin over the years, Clara Rockmore being outstanding and I recommend her to you. Pick up her record, if you want to hear some very interesting music. And this was used on several soundtracks of movies. It had about three tubes and it’s an amazing instrument in that he did so much with just three tubes. The timbres are quite amazing and they depend a lot on peculiar transformers, twists of fate. And, as I said, the techniques for playing it are very highly developed by certain people and there were hundreds and hundreds of theremins built by Robert Moog, maybe I have one here, I forget. No, that’s it for theremins. The modern theremin is exactly the same as the old one, except it’s made of dozens of IC’s and it requires the same dexterity to play it.

RBMA

And it's a lot more affordable and there’s even building kits for it as well, right?

Don Buchla

Yeah, it’s still marketed, I believe, by Moog Music in the form of kits and it’s becoming more and more popular as time goes on. This is(next slide)Sal Martirano sitting in front of his SalMar construction and that was built very early, in the late ‘60s, I think. And it’s an amazing array of patches towards the top and no knobs or switches. Well, switches in the sense that it was a touch keyboard and you could make an outrageous array of sounds and he played them through these polyplanar speakers and later on he switched to oval car speakers. There were 24 of them in the system, they were hung seemingly randomly around a room, but the oscillators and electronics are all on the top there. The second element down there is the patch bay with all the wires hanging from them and the bottom element is the keyboard. The rest is all structure. It weighed several hundred pounds. I remember, I knew Sal very well, we played on a concert in Europe, in which the SalMar construction was imported, all 400 pounds of it were. It was in Belgium and the Belgian concerts are financed by a consortium, which France has half of, but they cut off the funds. One government cut off the funds, so we didn’t have enough to ship anything back so he ended up having to pay for the shipping of this monster himself. It was a long time getting it back into this country. This is certainly a one of a kind synthesizer, but Sal got around a lot and played a lot and influenced a lot of people with his interesting views of music and certainly his interesting ideas on synthesizer design.

RBMA

When you actually play such a device, how big is the percentage of really knowing what you’re doing and how much is random fooling around? I mean, you can get lost quite easily in all those patches.

Don Buchla

I think it was an essential part of Sal’s music, randomness and incomprehension and getting around in arbitrary ways. (looks through folder) OK, while Moog made a multiple touch sensitive keyboard, he started with the mechanical, conventional organ keyboard and made little, tiny circuit boards that went on each key that could sense where you were on the key sideways or vertically, and it didn’t work out very well because you don’t have enough independent control of the finger of the hand. It’s hard to move this key up and this key down at the same time. In fact, it’s virtually impossible. Yamaha built along those lines Terry Riley a keyboard in which he could move the keys laterally to change the pitch and Terry tried to use it, but again, he couldn’t. He couldn’t control one finger’s sideway motion independently of others so the whole keyboard kind of flopped. I built a keyboard, come to think of it, that used that same idea, but the whole keyboard moved so wherever you were playing it shifted frequency as you pushed to the left or right. That turned out to be fairly manipulate-able, but with the disadvantage that you couldn’t control individual keys.

RBMA

So it was almost like communism, the idea was really great but you’ve got certain human limitations?

(laughter)

Don Buchla

Exactly. And Bob spent an enormous amount of money putting together his keyboard, which he had planned to market. And when somebody first played it they said: “Ah-ah, this doesn’t work.” Let me show you a modern keyboard here. (next slide) This is the Haken controller, it’s kind of expensive, but it’s very interesting in that it has continuum, as referred by the title, of touch capabilities both in the horizontal and vertical dimensions. It’s differentiated by ridges that you can feel. It’s overly complex, I would say, but there it is. (next slide) And this is called the Chordboard, it’s one of many keyboards that have been introduced. This is kind of an interesting one, it’s supposed to be very easy to play. I found it to be difficult, but maybe with training…

RBMA

When did you have moments where you really had to understand that there is certain limitations to what humans actually can perceive and manage? Like: “Oh, theoretically it would be so great,” like that thing there. It just looks like: “Oh, wow, loads of possibilities, but…”

Don Buchla

I think of that a lot. I had something to do with the design of the controls for the Gemini and stuff like that, when you have an array…

RBMA

Gemini not being the DJ mixer, but the…?

Don Buchla

… it's actually flying around up there. We had to have a lot of switches and a lot of panels and a lot to look at and we expect very responsive reactions in very unusual environments. So the organisation of things is very important and you have to consider the ergonomics of the design and the visual aspects. Here’s a typical engineering approach, and even if I was a little bit familiar with this mixer (reaches out to the DJ mixer in front of him), I wouldn’t be able to reach for the balance on this. This is fairly good, but any more than five in a row horizontal or vertical we tend to not be able to grab intuitively. If you have a matrix of just ten across or something like that, you cannot reach for the proper knob that you wanted. So you’re better off trying to organise things a little bit differently in geometrical patterns or in ways that provide reference points all over the place. So I got into that kind of design and I've seen a number of keyboards that violate that principle and the black and white keyboard as we know it for 12 tone music is quite good. It has a grouping of five here and a grouping of four here and a grouping of three here and a grouping of two. It has four different groups that we can readily identify. Any more than five in a group and you’ve had it.

RBMA

With this “five knobs in a row” that makes total sense, because anyone who’s ever sat in front of a proper old school recording desk, you’re like: “Oh my god!”

Don Buchla

Yeah, you have to read the titles and so on. Then again, that’s not a performance instrument.

RBMA

Depends on how you view your art, I guess. Are there any other laws or rules of efficiency and feasibility that you learned through your space work?

Don Buchla

Not that I can think of off hand, but I think I’ve learned a lot. This is another one I wanted to show you, the Music Pole.

RBMA

But while we’re at the subject of feasibility, you were, amongst others, involved in feasibility studies of sending chimpanzees somewhere? Where did they want to send them?

Don Buchla

We built this structure to send them to Venus, but we never did. I built a lot of NASA experiments that never got off the ground and one of them was… There’s a good picture of me someplace holding a rabbit, because I had to come east from Berkeley or San Francisco to approve the cage that Minneapolis Honeywell built for our chimpanzees, but we were using rabbits at the time because they were a lot cheaper and a lot smaller. We lost them occasionally, but this one we actually managed to keep alive for a long time in this totally sealed cage about that big.

RBMA

How do you manage to decide whether that's feasible sending a chimpanzee god knows how many million kilometers away?

Don Buchla

It’s actually not feasible because you have the animal rights advocates that you have to placate and so the monkey has to have a good chance of coming back. They can’t just shoot a chimpanzee off into space nowadays.

RBMA

The Russians would have been a lot quicker with their space program if there hadn’t been that public outrage about Laika being left in space?

Don Buchla

For sure.

RBMA

Can you remember that?

Don Buchla

Oh yeah, distinctly. I tripped to Minneapolis to prove this thing. I had built the transistors to go inside this thing. I had to build six different transmitters to go inside the poor rabbit. One of them transmitting EEG and EKG in respiration and acceleration. And we could tell what the rabbit was doing and tell pretty much what its state was. Interesting experiment. I came back to Minneapolis in a cold spell, unfortunately, and I fixed the oxygen machine. The oxygen measure had broke down and I took it apart in the lunch room. I had all the tables lined up perfectly clean and I took this instrument apart. We had no schematics and nothing at all. I took it completely apart, laying the parts out in the order I took them out, and I had four or five engineers helping me, and I discovered a crack in this basic sensor this very tiny, we sealed it up with epoxy and sealed it all together again and it worked just fine. And consequently, they offered me a job, and a very lucrative job, as head of their research department and I would have taken it, I think. I was debating it, but I went out for lunch and a cold wind came up - it was a very, very cold , it was an unusual one - and I grabbed a parking meter to keep me from being blown down and my hand froze to the parking meter and when I took it off all the skin just ripped off. So I went in and had emergency treatment and swore never to come to Minneapolis again.

(laughter)

RBMA

So, without that parking meter the path of electronic music could have been completely different. Can you actually recall the sound transmitting of Sputnik?

Don Buchla

No, I don’t recall it. Like a submarine or something. ‘Beep beep’. Let me show you the Music Pole, that’s another kind of keyboard with a touch surface. This was introduced, I’d say, two or three years ago, I’m sure it’s gone by now. It’s one of these instruments that comes and goes, but you place your fingers on this thing and you can play chords. This guy was very interested in chords, and if you rotate the instrument your fingers needn’t move, I don’t know how it works. The key will change, the chords will stay the same so you can play chords by finger patterns and the key you choose depends on how you rotate it.

RBMA

When you speak of chords, what’s your stand on polyphony and monophony, your arch nemesis, the late doctor Bob Moog, had a very considerate stance on it?

Don Buchla

What was his stance?

RBMA

Well, he was like: “If god had meant people to sing in polyphony, he would have created them that way.”

Don Buchla

Three heads or what?

(laughter)

RBMA

Everyone has got his own voice. So yeah, form a choir and if you want synthesizer to play chords, get three?

Don Buchla

Get what? Three synthesizers? No. Oh, get three different ones. OK, perhaps I’ll develop the first polyphonic synthesizer, I don’t know. My feeling is that you should be able to play several different notes at once. I started with four notes and I discovered through the input of David Rosenboom that you really needed five or six notes for a good jazz chord, so we went to six notes of polyphony.

RBMA

What was the major step that you had to undertake to take it from four to six notes polyphony?

Don Buchla

We changed the sampling and the number of generators to six, I think. But, eventually, I reverted back to four and I decided that was satisfactory. I’m not playing jazz on the synthesizer, at least not chordal lines. (next slide)This is a piano that the maker cautioned us to institute a buddy system, if you are going to attempt to play two notes that were an octave apart. I’ve seen a similar system marketed by some big agency so it’s still in production this thing, an overgrown keyboard. What else do we have here? Oh, I have on my staff three brilliant mallet players, just by coincidence, because it takes a long time to learn to play a mallet instrument. I looked around to see what was available for them and I found this, this is called the MalletKat and it’s built by a company in Massachusetts, I believe. The instrument is a model of conventional mallet instruments, this one being kind of - I don’t know how to say what it is - but it’s played with mallets. It has nothing extended about it. My position has always been that, if you’re going to use an external controller, you should add something. This guy is taking a mallet instrument, same array, doesn’t have anything new on it. There's another instrument that came and went very rapidly. This is the Xylosynth. I believe it was built in Germany, or maybe England. I don’t give you credit for building this one. But the Xylosynth had even less capability, these were wooden mallet device things. You call this, I think, a marimba, an imitation of a marimba. And it had pick-ups on all the keys and this girl was remarkably good at playing it, but it didn’t offer much. I couldn’t find any other electronic keyboards so I got to work and built the Marimba Lumina, which I hope I have a picture of here. Yeah, that’s me and the Marimba Lumina, it’s slightly curved and all of the keys, each key is an antenna, essentially. There’s little radio reflectors inside the mallets, so they’re not active, but they are doing a strange thing, which I can explain in more detail if anybody wants to know about it. But the antennas can sense where you are along the key, so as you move your mallet up and down the key, it will respond in whatever way you want it to. It differentiates between the mallets, which is why they are all a different colour here. Which mallet you are playing the key with can be picked up and send to a completely different midi stream. This is basically a midi controller, although it does have a sound generator built into it so it’s an entire complete instrument as it stands.

RBMA

Hang on a second, like you could play with, let’s say, you only got two hands still, but the blue one could be the bassline, whereas the yellow one could be hi-hats and you could do like some brassy sound with the red one and the lilac one?

Don Buchla

You can carve out the keyboard into sections, so hi-hats could be over here played by this and over here would be cowbells played by this mallet and so on. I forget that my image is not occurring up there (looks at the screen). So it’s a pretty flexible instrument and mallet players like it a lot. But the really good mallet players, the ones I wanted to get it, they don’t like it because it cannot imitate the sounds that they want out of ancient mallet instruments. “OK, this doesn’t sound like my 1939 Megan.” ”Well, it wasn’t designed to.“ Subsequent, this one we had to charge $10.000 for because it was gold-plated on black epoxy and took a great deal of layering and handwork to construct it. And the later one was built much shorter than this and without the curvature and it was being sold for around $2000. It was built by Nearfield Systems in Los Angeles and they’ve abandoned it, so now we have the rights to it and we have a lot of requests to build more, but I don’t think we’re going to. (next slide)This is a cello, let’s get into the strings now. This is probably the first electric cello, it used pick-ups, it had a mic up towards the performers lips. That performer is my second wife and she had an amazing technique on the cello and that’s why I built this instrument for her. She still uses it, this is now 20 years later and she’s still playing it in the orchestra and things like that. So this is called Essence Of Cello and it’s a very interesting controller. From the signal that the cello produces I extracted features and I did that with feature detectors or extractors. It used two feature extractors, one of them is an envelope detector, an envelope follower, in which you put a signal in the third row down and you receive control voltages up with it responding to the signals. You can set as you can see decay times and sensitivity and you could have different pulse responses. You could actually pull a pulse out of the signal that, even though the signal wasn’t going through zero because it could be AC coupled or DC/AC couples, a combination of the two, so that any major thrust in the volume of the signal would result in a pulse. The right hand contraption is a frequency detector, it was a very good one, actually. I used it for taking signals from the cello or other live instruments, the saxophone a lot, and it would produce the envelope and it would produce pulses and it would produce a locked oscillator and it would produce the fundamental, the oscillator being locked to produce harmonics, and then it produced a constant amplitude signal. It had a very good compressor in it, so that was an intermittent transfer gate so that you could transfer the aptitude from whatever signal was going in to whatever signal you put through it. So it had a lot in one unit but the important thing was it was very fairly good at following pitches of many sorts including the voice. And that’s always been a problem.

RBMA

This is like a cello Talk Box kind of thing in a way?

Don Buchla

Yeah, you could use it that way. These are more stringed instruments, much later in production, but there’s a violin and a cello and a bass, all built by Zeta instruments and with very fine pick-ups. In fact, I’ve converted - since the cello pick-up here came out ten years later - I’ve converted the Essence Of Cello with the Zeta pick-up. So it’s a strange hybrid now. This is the Starr Guitar and it has a touch fingerboard and a bunch of strings that you play with the right hand and you can also play kind of a pseudo keyboard with the right hand and I kind of liked it, it was a pretty neat instrument. These people are still building instruments, I’m not exactly sure where they are. This is a Synthaxe, similar in many ways, except these are actual strings on the right and strings on the left, but the strings are not continuous as you might note and there’s a sharp turn to navigate there. This is a good way of building an electronic guitar, it allows you to play again a pseudo keyboard and strings. I had a lot of ideas for electric guitar I played around with. I was actually an accomplished guitarist at one time and I played flamenco guitar. And I had an idea, and one of the actions in flamenco is what’s called the rasgueados, and that’s moving the fingers like this (moves fingers uneasily). I fell the other day and this finger was caught. So I wanted to build a guitar with cards substituted for the right hand, so these little cards projected, kind of like your credit cards through slots, and they could be manipulated like strings and they could be pushed like strings and felt like strings and you respond to rasqueado with that kind of continuous control. And they could do it for stopped sounds like you play a string and stop it with the next string. And so it had all kinds of capabilities and it had a lot of others. You could tell where on the string you were and produce the control voltage as you can on guitars, so the control voltages that emanated from my right-handed guitar, which never was built, were quite flexible and extensive. (next slide) This is one of the longest stringed instruments I’ve seen. Another one that’s installed on a permanent basis, but this is the Quad and this is Paul Dresher andJoelDavel on the right, they play a lot together and it’s quite an interesting instrument. I think here Joel’s perhaps rolling devices down the strings, which creates a peculiar glissandi effect, and here Joel is playing the Marimba Luminar, that’s the one I was telling you about. It’s one of the small ones, but you can’t see it very well in this picture. See what else we have here. (next slide) In this era I also worked with EEG's. David Rosenboom was a very primary influence, he worked with me for a number of years and he’s now the Dean of Music at Cal Arts, but he did brainwave pieces. He was well-known for very clever adaptation of the brainwaves, alpha and the beta rhythms and so on to music, and wrote a nice piece called On Being Invisible, which I took with me to perform on tour. And the performance went fine in rehearsal, it was in a beautiful garden in Copenhagen, and when I sat up on the stage with my electrodes on completely wired up to create this piece, I couldn’t generate any alpha rhythm. So the piece was never actually initiated. I had to reach over after 15 minutes of dead silence and play the synthesizer manually (laughs). The brainwaves are a very interesting way of playing music. The bandwidth of these things is probably about a thousandth of the bandwidth of the person’s using in terms of information bandwidth playing the piano. You have to get used to dealing with information streams that by themselves don’t contain much intelligence, usually, they come right out of the brain.

RBMA

Just probably for the non-native English speakers, you are wired to an EEG, like you are about to be sent somewhere and you expect that the electrical information in your brain is going to trigger off sound?

Don Buchla

Did you have a question? (question inaudible) Oh boy, I don’t know. This stuff is pretty interesting, trying to control the frequency of the bands of your brainwaves, as they call them. We know a lot more about EEG now than we did then and we can put a lot more pick-up’s on the head and get very selective about the areas of the brain that are actually being triggered.

RBMA

Anyone who has ever worked on an ambulance knows that there’s quite a good rhythm going in these rescue cars.

Don Buchla

Absolutely. One of the interesting things about brainwaves, I’ll digress slightly here, it explains my aversion to fluorescent lighting. I wear this cap here to prevent direct contact with fluorescent lighting because it’s pulsing the brain. The optic cortex is the biggest area of the brain by far. When everything is saturated in fluorescent light, as it is in small studios many times, the fluorescent light is going on and off at 60 times a second, or ideally at 120, but more roughly 60 and it’s shutting off your brain 60 times a second. The brain is kind of a fluid thing and everything is coupled with everything else and when this happens - no matter where you take the EEG - if the subject is looking at fluorescent light, you see 60 cycles from the fluorescent light. And the idea that we can sit in a computer room, say, with absolutely no incandescent lighting, that is light that can fill the black areas between the fluorescent lighting, it changes our whole thinking mode. It certainly changes mine and very consciously. That’s why I said: ”No fluorescent light.“ I think they should be outlawed, actually. They are going to be obsolete anyway in a few years with LED lighting taking over. And also, you have a high frequency fluorescent light, which occurs in these little tubes and things and that doesn’t bother me at all. I guess, it doesn’t bother most people, but some of us are immensely bothered by fluorescent lighting. And if you’re doing EEG work, as I have done in a laboratory, you absolutely have to make sure that there isn’t a single fluorescent light with even the view of your subject because you’ll get nothing but 60 cycles and that’s hard to analyse.

RBMA

Most engineers would know about these problems anyway because they don’t want to have any kind of hums?

Don Buchla

Yes, but interestingly enough - well, that’s true - and also SCR’s, which are varying incandescent lighting a lot that causes noise in a lot of audio tapes, but that’s a different matter. That’s not causing noise in the brain.

RBMA

We know you live in California. It’s always a very fine line when you read highbrow philosophical books, they always tend to get very esoteric to a degree, or highbrow mathematical books; where for you personally is the line between science and where does it go off into the ether?

Don Buchla

Where science falls apart? I could answer that question, but I think it might take a chapter in a book or something. It’s a very complex question and one that I’m going to avoid for now. (next slide) This next one is called ORB, it stands for ‘Optical ranging for the Blind’, and I had a totally blind person who was congenially blind, blind from birth. I wanted to build a navigational aid to replace his cane. Well, blind people, for the most part, I’d say 90% of blind people hate dogs. Guide dogs are a way for the public to feel good, like: “We’re supporting the blind, throw these quarters into this Lions Club Agency fountain and we’re helping them.” Well, you’re not helping them. The dogs have to be retrained every three years or they die and so on. And the blind person has to spend an enormous amount of money to go from coast to coast because the only place you can get your dog trained is in New Jersey. All the blind people are baffled and want to get around and communicate navigate by cane, but the cane is pretty crude, you can only point to one thing at a time or touch the surface. It’s fairly good for terrain discontinuities, but it is a disaster in terms of the upper window that you are always walking through because when something comes that’s high (holds hands up to his face) it bounces off your head. So I built this ORB, which is a beam of light, that can be reflected off of whatever it’s aimed towards and the distance is calculated by strange methods, by trigonometry, in fact. So the blind person hears a steady tone if he’s in range or anything. It’s not so steady, it’s steady only if he’s holding the beam steady. But as he moves it, the closeness of it varies the pitch. Well, that’s a very simple concept, but I got a research grant actually from the National Foundation For The Blind, the American Foundation For The Blind and the Veterans Administration and another outfit, I forget. Oh, MIT, they were doing some work on it. They all gave me a total of $40.000 and the contracts from two of those agencies, the MIT and Veteran’s Agency, were cancelled by Johnson, by presidential cancellation. He cancelled blanket contracts, it wasn’t just directed towards me, he cancelled all new rehabilitation funds in the days following the Vietnam war. It wasn’t until the veterans started coming back from the Vietnam war that he wanted to institute my research. My research was primarily geared towards the congenially blind but it helped veterans a lot. But the trouble is, at the time I didn’t want to participate in contributing anything to the stupid war effort and I didn’t even want to contribute to the rehabilitating of these veterans, who voluntarily went over and got their eyes shot out. There were 10.000 of them. So war blitzed my preliminary prototype of the device, which I envisioned was the size of a cigarette pack or something, which you could point anywhere and get a lot of information about your environment. I didn’t develop this instrument because I didn’t have the $40.000. The American Foundation For The Blind wanted me to develop it, but their portion of the grant was only $2000 and I couldn’t do much with $2000, even in those days. (next slide) Well, here’s what it looks like. It’s a big instrument and it’s kind of a hand-held thing, but it can be made a lot smaller. Two lenses were transmitting and receiving lenses and they were very efficient. Now, RCA contributed the LEDs that I used in this version. They cost $450 for LEDs that hardly put out any visible light and they are now 20 cents for the same ones that are far more efficient by a factor of a hundred. So I could build a lot more efficient unit given much smaller optics and advanced processing and so on. This is in the days before integrated circuits were even available and cheap.

RBMA

The way it works is somewhere in between, let’s say, what a bat does with subsonics and park distance control in a car?

Don Buchla

Actually, a bat uses extremely refined processing and uses ultrasonics, which the beams sent out are multidirectional and the bat receives an awful lot of information because information is coming around from all over the. And he processes the information that comes back with techniques that we barely have together now. We would find it difficult to perceive the spatial resolution that the bat achieves from birth. So I’m not pretending to get it together to compete with the bats and this is infrared rather than ultrasonic technology. I wanted to combine this with ultrasonic technology, which can analyze the window all at once but that would have taken a lot of research and I find a great reluctance to finance my research. Primarily because the Lion’s Club, I hope there are no lions here, but they have an awful lot of money left over. They are out there in New Jersey, can’t find enough blind people that want sighted dogs to guide them. So they really block other research and so this way the blind person is at quite a disadvantage he’s working with, technologically primitive tools. Another aspect of that is the government. The government when they let out a grant, if it’s a rehabilitation grant for blind people, they let it out to Western Electric, for instance. I think it was called the Haverproof project, in which engineers assigned to the project were essentially retirees. There were seven projects going on after the Second World War but of those only one of them was financed much after two years and that was doing a similar technique here, but they were using neon lamps, which didn’t give anywhere near enough resolution to do anything. But they were playing with their neon lamps for seven years using a crew of retired engineers - engineers that should have been retired - but they were put out to fry on these kinds of projects. (next slide) I wanted to mention that in 1983 this thing we know as MIDI, which is Musical Interface for Digital [was introduced]. And it’s prime functions were to recognise the essential differences between every instrument and to establish a standard that would allow communication between these different parts. It succeeded in what it was about to do but over the objection of many others. I was at the original MIDI meetings and I couldn’t stand the idea of a 7-bit message. I wanted 8-bits because the 8-bit is very much in common use and to use 7-bits to transmit a bunch of 8-bit words was very clumsy. In the early days you had to program a micro computer to do manipulation to get a full 8-bit transmission. I couldn’t figure that out and I also couldn’t figure out the rate, why they were using 31khz, I think, as opposed to more like a mega hertz. Because at the time Hewlett Packard was demonstrating opto isolators, which turned out to be the major limitation in MIDI that went up to 500khz easily. So I did have my objections and I didn’t participate in the early MIDI days because I couldn’t see that it would ever make it anywhere. Well, it finally proliferated and we had lots of instruments and I built what’s called the Buchla 700. And I built maybe ten of them and if you looked at the back panel, they were just covered with MIDI inputs and MIDI outputs and could service as a central MIDI switch and was a synthesizer in addition and had all kinds of I/O capabilities. So I had 700 of my stations out and I said: “Well, we’re going to have a lot of MIDI inputs coming up now.” For five years I waited and no MIDI controllers, other than keyboards, were introduced. Absolutely none other. So I finally said: “Well, I’m not going to build synthesizers any more. I’m going to build controllers.” And so I started building controllers to utilize the new found MIDI and to try and extend its capabilities. So what did I build first? It wasn’t an organ keyboard, I can guarantee you. It was Thunder, that was it. Thunder, which is still in demand, commanding very high prices, there are quite a few of them been built but they are no longer in production. So these are three of the controllers. I had a picture of the Thunder but it evaporated. But these are actually the first three that I built. There were actually four in the proposed system. Thunder on the right, Wind in the middle and Lightning on the left. The one that was missing was called Rain and it got halfway done. There were two parts to it and the sound generation parts to it were very skillfully done. It involved thousands of notes per second, or hundreds I should say, and was way too dense for MIDI to be able to handle. So I had to translate to another interface for Rain and it was two parts. There was one person building the performer interface and another person building the sound generation stuff, which again, I couldn’t use conventional synthesizers before. Now we have 128-voice synthesizers or computers that can generate a thousand voices, at that time we were limited to more conservative numbers. Wind was never quite finished but it’s a pretty interesting controller. The one in the centre depends on the height of the fingers above the holes there. It’s not switches it’s actually sensing using infrared techniques the height of the finger. Which means that as any flute player or any trumpet player, trombone player, whatever, even valve instruments, are sensitive to where you are above the thing and to have a switch changing the pitch is kind of ridiculous. And yet, that’s the way most wind controllers are built. There is one other exception to Wind that was built somewhere along the line. I’ll try to bring this up again. Oops, there’s the Thunder. This was a pretty popular controller. I’m still using this basic layout. The keys that have arrows along the bottom are all location sensitive. The keys along the top are controlled by the location of your finger on the key and the keys along the top all have LEDs in them. Well, not along the top but right along the wing keys. Then there’s one long key which is used for inputting values and so on and then there’s some keys on the very top row, which are labeled by the LCD display, which is probably pretty hard to see. Oh, now it’s easy to see there.

RBMA

It pretty much looks like a giant SP1200 display? Like an E-mu display? The typo and stuff? Did you do that on your own or was there any E-mu involved in it?

Don Buchla

No, this time there was certainly no E-mu involvement. I don’t know anything like this that E-mu built. I was told that another company copied me four or five years ago, but they used a defficient way of sensing the keys so it wasn’t reliable enough. And these are two-dimensional keys on the bottom, the two on the bottom. This I designed while I was in Arizona sitting underneath a very comfortable tree, heavily influenced by the Hopi Indians. So it became known as the Thunder. (next slide) And it had a pretty elaborate and pretty useful language. The language that you design between the touch plates and the resulting synthesis elements is pretty important to the way you play it and the flexibility of the language determines the flexibility of the instruments. This is very flexible and you could make anything happen with any key just about, provided the information can be transmitted via MIDI. What else we got here? Oh, this is Thunder 2. This is where E-mu fits in actually, this is actually a drum head and I brought one of the drum heads with me. The reason that I brought it is that you might want to look at it closer. I observed one day that if I got close to a drum head and deflected the drum head just a little bit, if I positioned just right, I could make it so that with very little pressure I could make my eye disappear. I thought it was remarkable. This is just a mirror and a seemingly simple head actually has 11 layers because I had to concern myself with opacity and the outside layers rim and ultraviolet layer disintegration of the next layer down and so on and so on. And there’s lots of adhesive layers, but the thing responds exactly like a drum head. It was built by Remo, who manufactures probably 95 percent of the drum heads in this world. So they were pretty good and they had a good art department and I softened up the guy who was head of the department by giving him a Marimba Luminar, he was a mallet player. So he experimented a lot and came up with these production heads, which are based on a standard Remo drum. So there’s a couple of advantages to using a drum head as the input for percussive instrument. The techniques for playing it are familiar and this was built later, this is an instrument, actually it’s a conga drum or something. You can take it to the beach and there’s a very powerful soundsystem built right underneath the head, about 4” is a speaker, a special speaker built by JBL to my designs because I used to work for JBL a little bit, and then surrounded on the periphery by that grading that you see, actually tweeters or a midrange I should say. The bottom base was reinforced by the output from the bottom, which stands off the ground a little bit, it’s a bass reflex configuration. So it puts out an enormous amount of sound. It’s a rechargeable 12 Volt battery that powers the whole thing, and you can’t see here, but there’s actually an E-mu synthesizer built into here because I was getting these things developed by E-mu. But I’ll tell you what happened. They changed the design, I wish I’d brought another drum head along, I could have shown you how this design evolved into. At that time, disco was the big thing, so they evolved it into a disco-appealing design, whatever that might be. But it was really garish and it did not appeal to the clientele that I was directing this to, which were drummers and which were beach drummers, you take this down to the beach and you play. So the marketing department and the engineering department were at big odds on what synthesizer to install on it. They finally decided on the… I forget what it’s called. This used a take off on the Proteus, I would much prefer to have used the Proteus. They have repacked the Proteus about a dozen times now and all it is is a change of ROM and a few other things. I detected the deformation of the surface with about 24 LEDs and about 24 sensors, hydrogen sulphide sensors and with that combination by scanning the array very rapidly I could discriminate 1/50.000th of an inch. That means I could easily get to full MIDI range across horizontally and vertically. So I could play one note here, another note here. I could massage those notes, I could play - if it was polyphonic - I could detect multiple fingers up to five. The zone of confusion is about half an inch. If I get closer than half an inch, it confuses the circuitry, and I could start a sound here and might like to move it around. I could move it around, as long as I didn’t leave it, it started with the initial sound, but it would change in its spatial location or its pitch, its timbre or whatever you wanted to do. And it could be set up to emulate any sort of drum. You could build it to be a tabla where the timbres change strongly and the number of ways you strike a tabla is considerable. And I was a madungun player for a while, I wanted to know about that one, and that’s a very, very complex drum but one in which you get enormous timbral changes. It’s a triple-headed drum but the holes become larger as you progress in the head and so on. But if anyone wants to take a look at it, it’s a pretty interesting effect, the idea that the eye can totally disappear. It means that when I’m shining light to that spot and picking it up from its reflection then it disappears and I know that somebody’s touching it. And note also that you can lie feather here and the weight of that feather would be detectable. You could not touch it in such a way that I wouldn’t know that you had touched it. Furthermore, being a drum head I could press down very hard so it had an enormous dynamic range and this is precisely what a drummer wants. And the feel is so good, it felt just like a drum. It was a drum, and the fact that this little thing we see on the screen amazed me when I first heard it. I played it and the sound came right back at me, right out of the head, because its speaker is right underneath the head, and it wasn’t very long, even though it was making very weird sounds, I forgot I was playing an electronic instrument. It just seemed I touched it, it resounds, but an electronic instrument, even an electronic drum with the speakers located 10 milliseconds away, I don’t have this presence. Even when the speakers are close, there’s a delay, so the very presence of it and the fact that it felt so much like a drum head was of great appeal to drummers. I think that E-mu’s absolutely crazy to drop it, they sunk a $1.000.000 into it and never got anywhere with it. They got into enormous fights between the different divisions. Any questions about this? Yes? (question inaudible) We built one working model, it worked very well. I remember I handed it to a good friend of mine, who’s not a good friend because I can’t remember his name (laughter), but he was a piano player… I went down to a jazz club with my Thunder. It was about this big because it didn’t have the other stuff on it and showed it to him in the intermission. He was so fascinated with it, he came out in the second set and did a little solo, playing the drum, and all I had done was put piano sounds across this and piano sounds this way, so all he could do was tap around like this, but he rapidly discovered ways of patterning it. This is in the intermission that he learned to play it, and he came out and played his first Thunder solo ten minutes later. But that’s as far as it got to that one unit. Now it is being rethought, E-mu gave it back to us very generously, so I put a programmer on it recently, how it does I don’t know, but I’m going to redo the optics because it can be redone much more efficiently now than when this was built. And the DSP we had to change because they don’t make the one we used then, but it becomes a lot more feasible now than it was ten years ago. So it’ll be interesting to see if we have a Thunder 2. I regarded myself as being in competition with Roland, they came out with the, oh, I don’t know what it’s called, maybe you know? Yeah, that’s it, the Handsonic was introduced by Roland and it has a number of areas that you can touch. But if you touch an area, you don’t really get anything else happening, that’s it. So there’s not much flexibility and they achieve what flexibility they have with doing a lot of programs so you can rapidly access a conga or tabla or cowbells or whatnot. But they’re doing fairly well with it, they’re not selling a lot, it’s not going to make them or break them.

RBMA

I know it’s very intricate and extensive all of your controllers but there’s also the human element to it. How does it make you feel when you see Raymond Scott up to Richard D James use stuff that you’ve created?

Don Buchla

I’m gratified. I like to see it in use. I try to design in such a way that things are pretty wide open in a modular system. I don’t expect any compositional style and when people ask me for a sound bite or a sound clip or whatever I say: “If I did something it would not be representative of the range of the instrument.” There’s no way of saying: “That sounds like a Buchla synthesizer.” It probably doesn’t, it probably is.Speaker:

RBMA

So what are the things that you guys discussed at the Dead Presidents Society and what is it in the first place?

Don Buchla

The Dead Presidents Society is just an arbitrary collection. It turns out that a lot of presidents are creators in the electronic world, the electronic music world, happened to live in Berkeley. Roger Linn,DavidSmith, Keith McMillen, who started Zeta, he has become a good friend. Max Matthews shows up at many of our meetings he was in San Francisco, Max is the founder of computer music, which started long before I started the voltage controlled synthesis business. So it’s nice to be around this, we talk about all kinds of things. I wouldn’t say we had a common ground, it can be anything.

RBMA

And most of you guys really experienced quite a few rollercoaster rides with stuff you’ve been doing. There’s a couple of shared lessons amongst you, I reckon. Like you said “former presidents”, a lot of you have gained and lost and gained and lost and gained and lost their names and companies, creations, patents all over again.

Don Buchla

Oh yeah, Tom Oberheim, Tom Oberheim is one of our members also. It’s true, none of us have stayed on top of it very long. Well, Roger has a new instrument out and Dave Smith has a fairly successful new instrument and I’m doing my stuff. Keith’s company is still going, he’s moved on to other companies and other endeavors. He always does the right thing, he sells out while it’s hot. And Tom Oberheim is working for the university and there’s no Oberheims being built now. Dave, I forgot his name, he built up a system that’s gone anyway. So we’re not all dead yet.

RBMA

So how do you personally measure success then in that sense, you said: “He is fairly successful”? It seems like you were not really interested in being the next Yamaha or Roland?

Don Buchla

I definitely wasn’t. I’ve built stuff on the fringe. I’ve always wanted to be on the fringe and there’s a niche market to say the most. It’s a very small piece of the total music market, and that’s where I want to be. I dislike getting into higher production and so on, and if I see an instrument that I’ve designed that’s very well accommodated, fine. I’ll try and sell it out to someone to build it and I’ll move on to more fringe stuff.

RBMA

Any more questions on the fringe stuff? I mean, you’ll be around for a bit as well?

Don Buchla

I’ll stick around for a bit if anyone wants to discuss anything with me.

RBMA

I guess in that case…

Don Buchla

I’m going to proceed with a few more. This is the Lemur. This is, I mentioned it earlier, a touch-sensitive thing in which those things you see on the left are pots and they can be moved around and placed anywhere you want them to. So you can build up a virtual console with your pots located in any place. Those are push buttons on the right, they behave a bit as billard balls, they have built in rolls so you can move them around. They have momentum, like billard balls they can bounce off the cushions with the correct angle. The thing only suffers from a lack of input structures, one thing, these conceptual input structures, and a lack of dynamic control. This thing here has about 60db’s of dynamics, this has about 5db and so that’s discouraging that you can’t vary the volume based on how hard you touch it. (next slide) This is the Beam, I took a picture of this guy with the Beam at a conference and I think it’s the only one built but I think it’s an interesting one. It’s a touch keyboard with a touch surface and I think it’s the only one built, you can program it to be all kinds of things, but I’m not sure what. (next slide)This is Lightning, temporarily out of production as we design a new version of it. Most of it looks the same but the top part there with the ‘88’ on the left is being reconfigured a bit and I brought a Lightning 1 along. I don't know why but I wanted to see if I can sneak something past customs (pulls out Lightning controller).

RBMA

Take thy saber, Luke.

Don Buchla

This is one of the things that, if we move around, we can sense the position of it horizontally and vertically and to fairly high resolution. And we use DSP techniques to extract gestures. This gesture means one thing and this another, this another, but it’s hard to do an upside down drum strike. We zoned the space into eight zones, four across and two high so that when you’re over in this zone you might use one instrument and when you’re over here you might use another. The horizontal shake is a good way of getting a very rapid movement going, double time, and that’s Lightning. And it differentiates between the two hands of course, this being left-handed because it’s red. I use the nautical left as red and right is green kind of approach. But that’s it for this. I wanted to show you a couple uses of Lightning, rather than bring an instrument I brought a couple of video tapes.

RBMA

Can we use the video?

Don Buchla

This Lightning used in a therapeutic sense, this guy’s a therapist. The other thing is actually my first piece composed on a Lightning. And it’s eight minutes long. I don’t want to take up so much of your time.

(video: Lightning stick being played in a therapy session & Don Buchla performing on the Lightning / applause)

The sound people were hard to convince, they absolutely insisted on positioning microphones and we didn’t have any need for microphones. The percussionist, as you may have observed, was trained in striking an instrument and coming to within an inch of hitting it but he didn’t actually play a single note from the instruments. (next slide)This is Max Mathews playing his Radio Drum, which is another sort of Lightning-like instrument, except that the range of the mallets there is only five or six inches above the surface. He likes it and he’s still developing it and attempting to market it and so on. He’s, as I mentioned earlier, the father of computer music. He wrote the first program quite a good one, actually Music IV, it was written in the '50s, maybe ’54. This is the Air Drum, another Lightning-like spatial controller. You gather I’m into spatial controllers in this section. These used to have meters inside them and so they were not sensitive to absolute position but they were sensitive to shakes in one or two directions like this and this. So he did a lot of work there. I borrowed his set up once to show a class and he forbid me to let any children hold them. When I asked why, he said: "If they dropped, they’d break." Well, you can’t build instruments like that, especially shaken ones. The instrument that was brought up earlier, the Wii2 or something, the Yamaha controller, there have been a number of suits against Yamaha, apparently. The wristbands break off readily and apparently people throw them through TVs striking at a baseball or something. Now they have put out a recall on all of them and provided them with much more substantial restraining forces and require that you put them on, otherwise you wouldn’t be covered by their insurance. (next slide) This is an interesting one, what is it called? I think it’s the E Pipe. You could move these elements along the bottom, position them in any way you wanted. The pole on the left is the distance sensitive gadget and so the distance from that pole determined one thing and the vertical distance from these sensors here determined another. But it tended to be discreet horizontally and continuous vertically and it came and went. And this is the Wii2 controller with the early wristband that broke off the instrument at very critical times. And this is a receiver for the Wii2. And this is a Wind, things got out of order here, but you can see the aspect of it for the performer. The mouthpiece here is transparent loose sight and there’s a hole in it through which you could sense pressure or sucking. But it also stands to position at the tongue so your tongue across it, kind of like playing a harmonica, you could change things radically because it could sense a continuous controller between left-tonguing and right-tonguing. It could sense sucking as well as blowing and it also sense where it was on the stage. As you moved across the stage the sound could move with you and it could sense its orientation if you pointed it up, down or sideways and rotated, it would pitch and roll with the three gestural sensors. I can answer questions about that later. (next slide) This is Nyle Steiner and his EVI, Electronic Valve Instrument. I think that’s still going in later incarnations. And these are other wind instruments, most of which are obsolete now, the one lower right is a Yamaha breath controller, I believe, it’s still going strong. (next slide) This is another wind instrument and it’s kind of complicated as you can see. It’s more complicated than it actually is, it looks more complicated, but it does successfully sense all kinds of gestures and can be rebuilt in various patterns. They often look a bit like humanoids. (next slide) This is a worker of mine. He’s holding a rainstick. This is probably the largest rainstick you’ve ever seen, it’s definitely the largest one I’ve seen. I found it in very remote Mexican village. It was probably built in Central America, and if you look very closely, you can see the little dots are the little sticks that penetrate the centre so it is full of pebbles and has a drum head on each end. So as you turn it upside down you hear the pebbles striking the drum’s head but on the way down they strike all of these little things and it takes about a minute for all the pebbles to descend. Sometimes invariably, we have mild earthquakes every once in a while so I have this leaning in the corner and have thought that it’ll all spin out an earthquake will hit and the whole thing will dribble down. It emphasizes the chaotic nature of the world. That was all I had on that. (next slide) This is a recent controller. It’s actually developed three or four years ago. I was working with dancers at the time and I wanted to pick up different gestures from the dancers. This is actually 50 little things, which could pin on your clothing, or sew it in your clothing or whatever, and this can sense where each of these 50 things were in space. Normally they’d be allocated to the one person, might have six sensors, another person or two might have six, you could also differentiate the speed of response. There were fast ones or slow ones depending on what you wanted. They tended to be slow at the waist and the hands tend to require much faster…

RBMA

So that’s essentially motion capturing?

Don Buchla

Yeah, this is motion capturing in about a 10 by 20 foot space and it was pretty good. We did a lot of experiments with it, but we never found a buyer for it and someone to help us get over the hurdle of turning it into a marketable instrument. If anyone knows of anyone that needs a Fifty Fireflies, then they could tell us.

Participant

I wanted to point out that Martyn Ware, who was here earlier in the week, had I guess a similar project that he had worked on with dancers, I don’t know if you’re aware of it.

Don Buchla

What technology did he use?

Participant

I’m not sure, was it 3D space? It was something that he developed but the company is illustrious, right?

Don Buchla

There’s some difficult problems with sensing this at a resolution of about an inch or two and it is difficult to sense with high precision the exact position of 50 different instruments simultaneously, so I’d be curious to see what he did. (next slide) Now what’s this? Oh, this is a modular approach to the same problem we were just discussing in which these benders in the left foreground are applied to the body and as you bend your elbow or something they create a signal. The signal will be transmitted to the receiver, which is the thing with the antenna on the right, and this thing on the left has to be strapped to the body and so on. I find these sort of things a little bit cumbersome but they exist and they should be reported on. (next slide) Now what is this? This looks like a tennis shoe. And this is a tennis shoe, in fact, and it’s been wired up. I’m trying to remember the guy’s name. I forget his name. I had it down. Suffice it to say that his senses about everything, the pressure in various parts of the foot, the EMG, the electromyography and it’s pretty useful. This guy is selling all kinds of these. This is the prototype, but he’s now expanded into selling sports shoes for golfers and tennis players and is on and they can analyze their gestures and make them better players. (next slide)This is a Body Suit, another device used to... ha ha, a bit embarrassing isn’t it? It works on the EMG so it has electrodes attached to various key points in the body so it can tell when you’re flexing your muscles. It’s good, it’s used by a couple of performers. (next slide) This is the biggest loser I ever saw, the Melody Wave. You won’t believe this, but they put one of these black or white transmitters assigned to each key of the piano, 88 of them, and if you shake one of them, you get that note out. I don’t remember what these two notes are, one of them’s a black note and one’s a white note, I suppose, so it takes quite a number of people to play the simplest tunes. This has a lot in common with the bells. What are they called the bells, in which each person has one…? There’s a name for one those bells, so there’d be a group of four playing these bells and they get pretty good at it. Well, these guys are doing a very similar thing. Each one would make one note. You think the guy would design them so if you shake them this way, they would make one note and this would make two other notes and so on and maybe grab the other end, so you can have eight notes on a stick without being very complicated. But these guys stuck to one note per stick.(next slide) There’s his ensemble, and they’re running around picking up the right note and they managed to play melodies with it and they think that they have the hottest thing since sliced bread. I mean, this is really amazing. And they had a synchronization problem because you are scanning all of them. It took 50 milliseconds to scan them all, I believe. I might be wrong by a few milliseconds, and so the notes would come out staggered depending on where you were, so you couldn’t play a chord. But he cleverly fixed that up so that they were all playing and the machine at the other end lined everything up so that they all sounded at once if you played at once. And that was very good except that the sound would be delayed by 50 milliseconds so you could not play anything very fast and it was amazingly expensive. Each one of these transmitter’s was a scary amount of money. The whole system cost $20,000 if you wanted 88 notes. You could get fewer notes for less money. Enough of that. (next slide) This is a Midi Tree. There was a guy that I admired for his foresight and his interesting [ideas]. He wrote something about this if I can read it here. “My vision included copper leaves that you would brush against and tall palm tress that you would reach up to play. Each Midi Tree consisted of telescoping folds that allowed height adjustment in relation to the height of the players. At the top of the fold is a foam ball, from the ball four straightened coat hangers reached out like palm leaves. I ran wires up the pole and out the branches leaving 2 or 3 feet dangling, the wires were bare for the last 6 inches or so and I fashioned leaf-like switches from copper tape. As the leaf touched, many notes were triggered. I covered each of the telescoping poles with a fabulous black blower hose for an industrial palm tree look. I covered each of the coat hanger wires with a smaller black plastic corrugated tubing, which looked very much like a smaller version of the blower hose. Since that occurred the week of Halloween I finished the decorations by hanging little skulls and skeletons from them.” I like that guy’s vision, it’s pretty crude. (next slide)Oh, this is Jerry Hunt’s Mannequin. I don’t have any further comments on that, it’s another MIDI controller. And this is a chainsaw controller. This was actually pretty good. It was painted very realistic. You’d think it was used for bodily disassembly or something like that. (next slide) And that’s the three of us. This is actually a traveling ensemble, we played a lot of gigs on the East Coast and a few in Europe and at this point we were putting Lightning’s inside the pins and the little dots on the pins were where it’s regulating. We weren’t good at passing these things, but I had some circus acrobats come in and throw the pins across the stage and they were all regulated so you cold tell which one was doing which. And you could do different sounds according to how fast they were clipping. I originally started this experiment with the Montréal group, the Cirque du Soleil or something, and I was working with the head music director there and the idea was the acrobats or the performers would develop the music. So instead of them performing to the music, they created the music. They created the sounds and there were no synchronization problems as a result because it’s hard to throw these things slower and faster. Gravity. (next slide) This is a good one, this is BF Skinner's experiment. I’m getting into control by animals now. This is a pigeon and it’s a very strange idea that he had. This project started and funded by the US Navy. It was started in about 1940/'41, in which the pigeons actually were taught for many months to peck at a particular spot on the aerial photograph taken of wartime spots in cities, they were targets. The pigeons got so good at pecking at the targets and they would be rewarded with a couple of kernels of corn if they hit the target. So they would do this, they would move around hitting targets. The pigeons were installed into the nose cones of missiles this is kind of an old-fashioned technique but electronics was not that well developed. It wasn’t as well developed as propulsion systems or missiles, so to steer the missiles was a big problem in 1941/’42. So he built these missiles, and I didn’t realise it until I read about it quite recently, that these pigeons when they hit off centre, would hit valves. That meant there were optics built into the war head, so the pigeons were striking at a screen about this big, and if the object at which they were striking, which was always the target, would get off centre a little bit, then the missiles would get a little skewed. So they knew that a peck over here that didn’t regulate would operate valves, which moved the pin on these things. It was just a mechanical linkage, there was no electronics involved. So the pigeon was steering the missile directly towards this thing here by strange means and it actually worked. It was done in Florida and it never actually hit the big time because the system did not function at night. The enemy forgot to light up its cities so the enemy could see them. The range was limited because of the optics and so on, they couldn’t project very far but it was certainly an interesting experiment, and the pigeon was doomed. They raised a great turmoil, everywhere losing thousands of people overseas, but the loss of the pigeon was considered bad form. (next slide) Let’s move onto another one. This is a bio-robotic system and it’s a three-wheeled contraption, which is essentially steered by a beetle and I’ll show you the mechanism. This particular beetle, there it is, he’s operating a ping pong ball and underneath it is a sensor that can determine which way he is running because tha ball is turning. He’s captivated in the system by this little bracket and his wings are tied firmly to the bracket so as fast as he peddles, he doesn’t move at all. But the direction he’s peddling initiates a bunch of lights you’ll see around the front of him. If a particular light lights up, he hates light. This particular guy, he’s photo-entropic or something like that, and he backs up. The ping pong ball is geared somehow so that it operates the server mechanisms that are operating the wheels. So that the beetle, when the light comes on, it’s because the device has approached a wall or an obstacle and the beetle will back up and slow the vehicle. So it’s interesting to watch this vehicle move around under the control of this photo-entropic beetle or cockroach as it was. I like that as a controller. Every once in a while it would go totally out of control because the beetle would not do the right things and run into a wall or something like that. (inaudible comment from participant) I’m not reducing myself to practical applications, that’s your job. (next slide) Oh yeah, there’s another one I wanted to show you. We’re still on the subject of animals. These are hamsters and it’s a very simple idea. Each row here represents first pitch and then simple dynamics, and it’s a three voice polyphonic synthesizer. (...)

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