New biography of electronic music pioneer Wendy Carlos

From her groundbreaking first album Switched-On Bach (1968) to the unforgettable soundtracks for A Clockwork Orange (1971), The Shining (1980), and Tron (1982), Wendy Carlos is a living legend of electronic music. In March, Oxford University Press will publish Wendy Carlos: A Biography, written by musicologist Amanda Sewel, musical director of Interlochen Public Radio. From the book description:

With her debut album Switched-On Bach, composer and electronic musician Wendy Carlos (b. 1939) brought the sound of the Moog synthesizer to a generation of listeners, helping to effect arguably one of the most substantial changes in popular music's sound since musicians began using amplifiers. Her story is not only one of a person who blazed new trails in electronic music for decades but is also the story of a person who intersected in many ways with American popular culture, medicine, and social trends during the second half of the 20th century and well into the 21st. There is much to tell about her life and about the ways in which her life reflects many dimensions of American culture.

Carlos's identity as a transgender woman has shaped many aspects of her life, her career, how she relates to the public, and how the public has received her and her music. Cultural factors surrounding the treatment of transgender people affected many of the decisions that Carlos has made over the decades. Additionally, cultural reception and perception of transgender people has colored how journalists, scholars, and fans have written about Carlos and her music for decades.

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Touring the inner workings of the Mellotron on King Crimson's anniversary

Fifty one years ago today, the first incarnation of the prog rock band, King Crimson, gathered in a cramped basement space below the Fulham Palace Cafe in London. One of the instruments the band would use that would come to distinguish their early sound was that strange, iconic 60s instrument, the Mellotron.

Keyboardist Ian McDonald was taken by the sound of this instrument as it was employed by the Moody Blues (and on The Beatles' Strawberry Fields) and thought it would work well with the type of lush and orchestral sound the band was looking to create. Later in the year, in the summer of 1969, the instrument would again appear on David Bowie's Space Oddity (played by future Yes man, Rick Wakeman).

Of all of the strange instruments that've worked the edges of popular music (the Theremin also comes to mind), the Mellotron is probably the oddest. Basically an upright organ cabinet filled the tape heads and recorded tape strips that you trigger through the keyboard, the Mellotron is like some crazy one-off contraption that caught on and actually got manufactured.

In this video, Allison Stout, of Bell Tone Synth Works, a synthesizer repair shop in Philadelphia, PA, takes us under the hood of a Mellotron MK1 and how it works. One can only imagine how finicky and prone to breakage touring versions of these things must have been.

And here's one of King Crimson's Mellotrons in action during a performance in 1974 at the ORTFTV Studios in Paris. Read the rest

This ambient mix of a new sci-fi-themed Rentals song is a sonic trip to outer space

In my experience, most people haven't heard of the Rentals — and most of those who have heard of them only really know them as "that other band that Weezer's old bass player was in." Or the band who wrote "Elon Musk Is Making Me Sad."

That is all technically accurate. The group was started by Matt Sharp while he was still Weezer's secret weapon. And Elon Musk does make him sad. Since leaving that other band, Sharp has continued to release orchestral synth-y power-pop with a rotating cast of musicians under the Rentals moniker over the last 20 years. The group has included performers like Maya Rudolph, the Haden Sisters,  Joey Santiago from the Pixies, Patrick Carney from the Black Keys, and many others.

The spaced-out track above is an instrumental mix of a tune from the band's upcoming sci-fi-themed album, Q36. The band has been releasing a new track every 2 weeks, along with a corresponding limited-edition t-shirt and hitRECORD project. And while I liked the regular version of "Invasion Night," I absolutely love this ambient version of it. Sharp cut out all the the vocals, drums, and bass in order to focus on his synthesizer sounds and the guitar work of Nick Zinner (most famously of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs), and the result almost makes me feel like I'm in the head of Major Tom as he floats to his death.

The video that goes along with it was actually part of the Rentals' 2009 album Songs About Time, which included 365 photographs, 52 short films, and 3 EPs, all created in real-time over the course of a year. Read the rest

Turning a Sega MegaDrive into a cool, retro synthesizer

Sam Battle of Look Mum No Computer, the mad sonic scientist who brought us the Furby Organ, has done it again. This time, he turned a Sega Genesis/Mega Drive into an awesomely retro-sounding synthesizer.

The Sega Mega Drive included a Yamaha YM2612 six-channel FM synthesizer chip under the hood. Sam broke that out to create his synth which so epically invokes that iconic, often cringe-worthy, 80s synth sound.

On his second YouTube channel, Look Mum No Computer But More Serious-ish, he goes into more detail about the YM2612, the Sega Drive, and putting together the synth. Read the rest

Groovy synth Star Wars soundtrack from Japan (1978)

In 1978, Japanese electronic music maestro Osamu Shoji (1932-2018) released this killer analog synth reimagining of the Star Wars soundtrack. I find Shoji's take on the familiar themes to be far groovier than the disco exploitation of Meco's US chart-topping "Star Wars and Other Galactic Funk" released the previous year.

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Sequencing "Sweet Child O' Mine" on a phone

iSongs is a YouTube channel that shows popular songs being recreated from scratch with the music-making app that comes with the iPhone. It's an excellent and incredibly dense tutorial, too, for those with the "observe and copy" learning style. Read the rest

Cool casemod of a Korg Minilogue synth

Love Hultén took a Korg Minilogue 4-Voice Polyphonic Analog Synth and modded it with a wooden case inspired by the Commodore SX-64 (1984). Read the rest

Stylophone business card

Master maker Tim Jacobs created a fantastic business card that's actually a Stylophone synthesizer complete with MIDI capabilities. It's based on the original 1967 Dübreq Stylophone, a small synthesizer played by touching a built-in stylus to the metal keyboard. The Stylophone was famously used on David Bowie's "Space Oddity" and Kraftwerk's "Pocket Calculator."

From Jacobs' project page about his StyloCard that ended up costing a bit more than $3 each:

Printed Circuit Boards as a business card are a great gimmick. I'd seen ones with USB ports etched into them, which enumerate as a keyboard and then type a person's name or load up their website. It's just about possible to build them cheap enough to hand out as a business card, at least if you're picky about who you give them to.

A couple of years ago I took a stab at making one for myself, but I didn't want it to be pointless. I wanted it to do something useful! Or at least entertain someone for longer than a few seconds. I can't remember quite how I got the idea of making a MIDI-stylophone, but the idea was perfect. A working midi controller, that's unique enough in its playing characteristic to potentially give some value, while at the same time costing no more than the card would have done otherwise, since the keyboard is just a plated area on the PCB, as is true on the original stylophone.

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TV-B-Gone inventor Mitch Altman's rad new $30 DIY Music Synthesizer!

Boing Boing pal and maker superhero Mitch Altman, creator of the amazing TV-B-Gone, spent several years designing a simple-yet-powerful DIY music synthesizer that he could use to teach creative electronics and also digital signal processing to kids and adults. The result is the ArduTouch Music Synthesizer! And it's only $30! Demo videos below. Mitch wrote about the method behind his maker madness in IEEE Spectrum. From his essay:

As a kid with a lust for music, I was rocked by the Moog synthesizer sounds of 1968’s Switched-On Bach. I needed to learn how to make those sounds! Thus began a lifetime of learning and synthesizer making while I made my way in the tech industry, where I ultimately created the TV-B-Gone, a gadget that lets you turn off almost any model of remote-controlled television. Since the popular success of the TV-B-Gone, I’ve created many fun, open-source, hackable hardware kits for the maker workshops I give around the world. In these workshops, newbies learn to solder, tinkering their way into electronics and microcontrollers. Remembering my own youth, I wanted to provide them with a kit that was simple to assemble [PDF] and use but still a fully fledged music synthesizer.

The result was the US $30 ArduTouch. This project incorporates, on a single board, a touch keyboard, an ATMega328P (the same processor used in the Arduino Uno), and an audio amp with a speaker. It also has a software library that can serve as an entry point into the world of digital signal processing.

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THE BUREAU: Part Three, "Assessing Others" — with a Metasonix D-2000 Vacuum Tube Drum Machine

Your supervisor would like to speak with you today at 10:53am. Good thing you have a great tasting sandwich to deal with that unreasonable feedback.

New anthology of Michele Mercure's 80s synth music from the cassette underground

In the 1980s, Pennsylvania-based Michele Mercure was composing music for theater, film, and TV animation. After a trip to the Netherlands, she became inspired by the German kosmiche music scene of Kluster, Tangerine Dream, and the like. But Mercure cut her own path into experimental electronic music, weaving her synthetic, rhythmic soundscapes with strange samples and cut-up vocalizations, resulting in tracks that move between abstract and ambient dreamscapes and mechanized intensity. For decades, Mercure's self-released cassettes (under the name Michelle Musser) moved through underground trading circles but many of those recordings will now reach a wider group of heads. Beside Herself is a gorgeous 19-track Michele Mercure retrospective released today by the esteemed curators at RVNG Intl. and Freedom To Spend labels. To celebrate the release, Mercure and Mary Haverstick created the wonderful "Electronumentary" above. Below, one of the album tracks. From RVNG:

Mercure’s artistic path never ran through creative meccas New York, San Francisco or Los Angeles. Raised in Springfield, Massachusetts, and then moving to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in her twenties, Mercure was already an adept musician when she encountered a local and lively theater scene, and was asked to score an unorthodox performance of Waiting for Godot. The experience was pivotal in marrying music and image for Mercure, and so she began making music for film, television, dance, and theater. It wasn’t until a long sojourn in Eindhoven, however, that she became transfixed by electronic music (ala Conrad Schnitzler, whom she would correspond with for years) that would inform her music to come.

Mercure’s contemporaries became the kindred minds of the Eurock “scene” such as The Nightcrawlers, Lauri Paisley, and Don Slepian.

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Moog's new flagship polyphonic synthesizer

Moog is finally releasing a new polyphonic analog synthesizer, its first polyphonic model since production stopped on the Memorymoog in 1985, and a direct descendant of the iconic-yet-monophonic Minimoog Voyager released in 2002. Above is the only image released so far of the new Moog One. It's priced at $6000 for the 8 voice model and $8,000 for the 16-voice model. From Sweetwater:

Powered by a sound engine with the most advanced architecture ever conceived for a Moog synth, Moog One is available in 8- and 16-voice versions that can simultaneously articulate eight or 16 voices, depending on the configuration of your instrument. The Moog One tri-timbral architecture lets you easily assign, split, layer, and stack voices with up to 48 oscillators in Unison mode...

Clad in a handcrafted ash cabinet, the Moog One aluminum front panel is fitted with 73 knobs and 144 buttons, welcoming hands-on interaction with all the sound-sculpting and performance controls. Extended on-screen functionality is accessed via More buttons (one for each module) that serve up additional parameters in the center-panel LCD to deliver the most intuitive and efficient synthesis experience possible.

Via Moog Music, a couple fine uses of the prior Moog Polymoog Synthesizer released in 1975:

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Rebirth of the Keytar!

Roland has announced the AX-Edge, a brand new keytar for synth players who want to "step into the spotlight." The AX-Edge, approximately $1000, features 49 full-sized keys, hundreds of preset tones, ribbon controller, and modulation bar, and Bluetooth MIDI. It's available in black or white and the "edge blades" on the instrument can be swapped to change the look.

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Gorgeous tiny synthesizers in wooden boxes

Love Hultén is a designer who builds gorgeous devices that merge faintly-retro stylings with digital guts (previously, previously, previously, and previously).

Now he's created the Bivalvia Synthesis, which is adorable and -- as this video shows -- capable of some lovely sounds ...

As he describes it:

The Bivalvia Synthesis is a small synthesizer toy based on Axoloti core, the open source hardware synth created by Johannes Taelman. The casing is handmade from wood and unfolds like a clamshell to reveal six dial/fader controllers combined with 15 high quality Cheery MX keys - 12 MIDI notes in chromatic scale, octave up/down and patch shifting. For output, there's stereo output on the back and a built-in full-range 15W speaker. Combined with Axoloti Patcher software - a user friendly and very graphic modular environment, you can create your own effects and sounds using oscillators (from subtractive to FM), filters, modulation, and much more. Simply connect the Bivalvia Synthesis to your computer via USB and start making objects. Build your own personal patch bank and store it on the built-in SD card.

Oooo I love it. Read the rest

Moby auctioning music gear to benefit animal rights group

Moby is selling more than 100 vintage synthesizers and a slew of other musical equipment to benefit the animal rights group Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. His Reverb marketplace store opens tomorrow, April 26.

“This is the equipment I’ve used to make all my records,” Moby said. “I have so much equipment and almost all of it has profound sentimental value to me, including synthesizers I started using in the 80’s. But rather than keep it all in storage, I want to sell it for a good cause.”

From Reverb:

Among the items that Moby is parting with is a Roland Jupiter-6 that he calls the "crown jewel" of his synth collection, having used it on "almost every techno record I made, from Go to U.H.F. to Thousand." Before Moby acquired the Roland, it is fabled to have actually belonged to early techno musician and legendary producer Joey Beltram.

Other synths Moby will be selling include the Yamaha SY22 Vector that Moby used to rework “Laura Palmer’s Theme” from Twin Peaks for his song “Go” (the first single he released under his own name), a Yamaha SY85 he used on “Feeling So Real,” a Roland Juno-106 synth used to create the basslines on song “Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad?” and “We Are All Made of Stars,” and a rare and unique Serge Series 79 Modular unit.

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Electronic music pioneer Suzanne Ciani explains synthesizers on kids TV show (1980)

On this 1980 episode of 3-2-1 Contact -- the excellent PBS kids TV show about science -- legendary experimental electronic musician Suzanne Ciani explains the basics of synthesizer technology. If you aren't hip to Ciani's music that spans avant-garde, classical, cinematic, and new age genres, I highly recommend you check out the fine anthologies and reissues of her work from the good people at Finders Keepers Records. Below, her stunning track "Paris 1971" from the compilation "Lixiviation 1968-1985." And you can check out Ciani live at this May's Moogfest in Durham, North Carolina.

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Keyboard Fantasies: exquisite New Age music you've never heard

In 1986, Canadian musician Beverly Glenn-Copeland recorded a stunning cycle of expansive, meditative, and uplifting synthesizer songs called Keyboard Fantasies. Self-released on cassette, that "New Age multilayered synthesizer music to relax, dance and sing with," as Glenn-Copeland described it, went mostly unheard even as he continued to compose soundtracks, musical theater for children, wrote for Sesame Street, and performed on the Canadian children's TV show Mr. Dressup. Now though, a beautiful reissue from the excellent Seance Centre label has brought Keyboard Fantasies into the sunlight where it belongs. Above, "The Lake Sutra," a brief documentary film following Glenn-Copeland, now in his 70s, to Huntsville, north of Toronto, where he recorded Keyboard Fantasies.

Beverly Glenn-Copeland's Keyboard Fantasies is available from Seance Center on vinyl and, of course, cassette.

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