“Digital? Is that the thing where they take a good old sine wave and they chop it up into little bits?” – Rupert Neve
Do things happen as a continuous flow, or as a series of discrete events? We could be talking about anything – everything – but right now we’re talking about sound, and for Richard Duckworth, Head of the Music Department in Trinity College, there’s only one answer. Richard is one of the main organising forces behind Ideopreneurial Entrephonics II, a festival of analogue voltage controlled synthesis taking place on Saturday 23rd and Sunday 24th April in the suitably exotic setting of the Freemason’s Hall on Molesworth Street. The above quote can be found in the signature of Richard’s emails. Even as a teacher of music technology in an increasingly digital world, he can’t help but have a soft spot for the hands-on, knobs and wires approach of analogue technology.
The event’s mouthful of a title switches the prefixes of the words ‘entrepreneurial’ – representing the spirit of both those building their own personal synthesiser rigs from assorted equipment and those manufacturing the modules within them – and ‘ideophone’, i.e. words that evoke ideas in sound. The weekend will serve as a meet-up for the modular synthesiser community across the country, giving builders an opportunity to show off their contraptions, while also hosting a concert of performances from a variety of ensembles and sound artists, as well as papers presented by academics and enthusiasts on the history of analogue synthesis and its reemergence in popularity over recent years, as well as the social, musical, technological and cultural uses of electronic instruments.
“It’s a festival of synthesised sound. It’s primarily based on modular synthesis, boutique makers are kind of the focus of the event,” says Richard. Despite it seeming like a somewhat niche interest, Duckworth has been overwhelmed by interest in the event. “We’ve had quite a spread! We’ve had proposals for experimental music, contemporary stuff, even ‘retro-contemporary’ process pieces, and then right off the bat we’ll have a synth-pop band, Kubo. It’s really nice to represent the whole cultural spread of synthesis. There’ll also be a bit of digital stuff as well, but it’s not really the primary focus of the festival, it’s more about the huge resurgence in voltage controlled synthesis, and modular synthesis specifically.”
Ideopreneurial Entrephonics II is, obviously, marked as the second of its kind, with the first festival having taken place at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, the brainchild of composer and teacher Ron Kuivila, who been something of mentor to Richard. “He was very surprised by the amount of people who showed up with boatloads and rafts of synthesisers modules, hanging around, connecting it all up and hobnobbing with each other,” Richard explains.
Ideopreneurial Entrephonics II is going to go one better than the original event with a surprising extra element brought to proceedings. “The extra factor to this is the choral end which will be quite exciting. There’s going to be a performance from the Vocal Constructivists from London and pieces for massed choir. That’s being co-curated by Jane Alden, our Professor of Music here in Trinity, and Ron.That’s being co-curated by our Professor of Music, Jane Alden and Ron. He’s done a lot of experimental music over the years. He’s hoping to perform two pieces, Rainforest by David Tudor, and then there’s a piece called Star Networks, by a guy called Ralph Jones. It basically involves a little circuit and you add things to them and you get little feedback loops. It sounds kind of like the soundtrack to that movie Forbidden Planet. He’s proposing to have six different set-ups, and people can just walk up and play with them for an allotted time, and put components in and let them make noises, which are then amplified.”
“So there’s three concerts, one on Saturday evening and then late on Saturday night, the Spatial Music people [from Trinity’s Music Department] are curating one of the rooms, and another set of performances on Sunday evening with Ron’s pieces and Matt Fairclough and Kubo. Then there’s a papers session, a conference end to it, and then in the larger hall people will be bringing down their modulars. Kind of like a vintage car rally, but for synthesisers! It’s a nice big room, so we’re going to put a larger PA in there and there’s a whole series of activities planned for that room, including a mass synth jam on Sunday afternoon.”
Despite the resurgence in interest in these machines, they retain an aura of mystique and impenetrability around them, and on stages in Dublin, you’re still far more likely to see someone poring over their MacBook Pro than a modular rig. I ask Richard what kind of community exists for these instruments. “It seems to be very diverse! The common interest seems to be this love of voltage controlled synthesis and of modular synthesisers. It can be anything from people who are very into dance music with people, very contemporary, and then people who are more like myself, you know, nerds! It’s actually mostly outside of academia, which is what’s pretty amazing. There’s actually been a bias against this stuff in academia, because academia went for the digital revolution, hook, line and sinker, and there’s a few reasons for that. Part of it is that it’s easier to administer courses digitally, but the students are really learning the paradigms [of synthesis] through cartoons or emulations of the real thing. The other reason is that there wasn’t a lot of new stuff going on, so it was left in static for a long time.”
“With me, I grew up on it, studied on the Moog modular system in New York in the ’80s under Herbert Deutsch – who’s a well known Moog employee, he worked with Robert Moog on the conceptual design of Moog synthesisers.”
While Richard’s own introduction links right back to one of the founding fathers of voltage-controlled synthesis, the proliferation of information and manufacturing options means that the barrier to entry into the modular world have never been lower. “It’s become much easier to make stuff. Like, you can find these CAD [Computer Assisted Drawing] packages online where you just design the panels. It takes a while – I’m designing a few myself right now – but you design the panel in CAD, you plot out where every hole goes, where every knob goes, specify the colour, the text for the silkscreen, and then you send that package off to the manufacturer, and they send you back a panel. And usually people will do that in a run of 25 or 50. Then you have the circuitry, you design the PCB [printed circuit board] that sits behind it, so once you figure out where the holes will go, you just design the PCB to match the panel, but it’s not hard to do that anymore. People are self-taught and can do it. I mean, obviously they need some kind of aptitude, but it’s not like they need an engineering degree. They love doing it so much that they’re willing to teach themselves. There’s a ton of resources online.”
There’s a hobbyist element to modular synthesisers – the hands-on nature of it, the importance of provenance and the uniqueness of each musician’s particular rig – that sets it apart from other musical instruments. “You see people who do very homemade things, cased in biscuit tins and things like that, but they can be very effective and do them very well. That’s almost like the ‘Etsy’ end of the scale, very ‘homebrew’.”
The shift in technological resources means that it no longer takes large companies to produce these musical tchotchkes. If one person’s design proves popular it can become an incentive to produce enough to sell them to other like minded sonic explorers, and it clearly becomes a habit. Innovations such as the Eurorack format, developed by Dieter Döpfer in the 1990s for his own company Doepfer Musikelektronik have created much more standardisation of sizes and connections leading to a huge increase in compatibility across manufacturers. For owners, the complexity and uniqueness of the build becomes intimately linked to the music that is composed on and produced by it.
Beyond the economics of production, it’s difficult to pin down just what is behind such a resurgence in interest in technology that appears to be essentially outmoded by personal computers and omnipresent digital audio workstations, like Ableton Live and Logic. Richard posits a few theories: “It could have been started with the dance music community, because they all seem to have a desire to incorporate some kind of analogue or keyboard element into their DAW productions, maybe a producer uses a piece of good analogue equipment in their signal chain which gives them their signature sound perhaps. And I guess certain people would be inspired by groups like Depeche Mode, who never really went away from using this kind of stuff.”
“And then I think it could have something to do with the ‘hipster’ revolution as well, the way people maybe were dissatisfied with digital recreations. People like making things for themselves. I mean, it could be a reaction against globalisation, that everything has gotten so generic on the highstreet. Say you go from Nottingham to O’Connell Street and every single city you go to has the same shops, people are wearing the same clothes, maybe this is a reaction against that – to build your own, or customise your own set-up. Even from a financial point of view, software loses its value. A laptop will become worth very little. A software license is pretty much impossible to sell. With this you can trade in, or getting something back at least.”
There are certainly a multiplicity of factors at play, but there’s definitely a recurring theme found in contemporary society of returning to older, simpler technologies, from fixie bikes to fountain pens. The fetishisation of voltage controlled synthesisers not only allows musicians to explore beautiful, unearthly music, but it also allows them to turn their heads away from the screens they face every day on their computers and mobile phones, and seemingly unstoppable tide of digital information that hurtles at us each day.
Ideopreneurial Entrephonics takes place on Saturday 23rd and Sunday 24th April at the Freemason’s Hall on Molesworth Street. Entry is free.
The history of modular synthesis begins in the early 1960s, when two of the names which still tower over the field, Robert Moog in Asheville North Carolina and Don Buchla in Berkeley, California, began independently producing voltage controlled electronic instruments that blew wide open the scope of possibilities of electronic music.
The basic format of modular synthesis is independent modules which undertake certain tasks are chained together as per the desires of the musician. The most basic modules do simple things like generate a simple sonic waveform (an oscillator), refine certain frequencies of that sound (an filter), shape of each note over time (an envelope) and instruct what notes to play (a sequencer). The connections are made often with short patch cables sending electrical signals which can either be the audio signal itself, or a voltage to control another factor in the matrix, or a logical condition (as in, if x then y). After those basics things tend to get a lot more complicated…
An excellent primer on the plight of the instruments, their effect on the music industry, their initial rise, subsequent fall and recent re-emergence in popularity is Robert Fantinatto’s 2014 documentary I Dream Of Wires.
Words: Ian Lamont
Photos: Killian Broderick