Chapter Introductions

James Gardner: Peddling the Putney: The Early Marketing of the VCS3 synthesiser

This chapter outlines the evolution and development of the first EMS portable synthesisers – the Don Banks Music Box, the VCS3, and the Synthi A and AKS – and goes on to discuss the nature of their early adopters between 1969 and 1972. Those early adopters included rock bands such as King Crimson, Roxy Music, Hawkwind and Pink Floyd; live electronic art music groups such as Intermodulation, Gentle Fire and Stockhausen’s ensemble; and a great many University electronic music studios.

Drawing on the author’s unprecedented access to the EMS archives, and interviews with key figures in the company, this paper examines the ways in which the advertising of these synthesisers changed during those early years. This change represented not merely a shift in the sales pitch but also reflected a change in the use and socio-cultural positioning of synthesisers.

Ian Dixon: Always Crashing on the Same Synth: Voice/Synth Counterpoise in David Bowie’s Low

This chapter analyses David Bowie’s use of voice and synthesizer in his album Low (1977), in particular, the song “Always Crashing in the Same Car”. By using Peter Dunbar-Hall’s music semiology and building on Derrida’s theory of hauntology, Bowie’s multiple vocal signatures are considered as augmentation of his synth effects. With Low, Bowie’s vocal melody, phrasing and prosody, in counterpoise to Brian Eno’s experimental synth-pop, generates a unique wall-of-sound, simultaneously dramatic and emotionally remote. The timbre of Bowie’s vocal effects is analysed against the “sonic language” of the ARP Solina (string ensemble), Farfisa organ, Chamberlin and Omni synthesizers. As contrapuntal forms of “Sonic Artefact”, voice and synthesizer dovetail to create the unique character of the album, where Bowie eschews the fame of Ziggy for the reclusive musical experimentation of his “Berlin trilogy”.

Michail Exarchos: Synth Sonics as Stylistic Signifiers in Sample-Based Hip-Hop: Synthetic Aesthetics from ‘Old-Skool’ to Trap

The use of synthesizers in Hip-Hop has ranged from sonic emulation, to sample augmentation, to original creation (arguably, of timbres and sub-genres alike). From the referential use of analogue synth leads in ‘G-funk’, to the EDM-inspired layers of ‘Crunk’, to the subtle use of sub-synthesis in ‘Boom-Bap’, a reciprocal dynamic can be observed between the types of synthesizers deployed and the aesthetic context expressed by Rap sub- genres. In an age of exponential stylistic morphing – particularly noticeable within electronic music forms – the relationship between synthesised sonic signatures and genre transformation necessitates closer investigation. Furthermore, the use of synthesis in sample-based Hip-Hop challenges the purist focus on phonographic sampling as the sole route towards stylistic legitimacy. What are the sonic factors that render synthetic timbres acceptable, appropriate or authentic? This chapter examines how synthesizers contribute to the stylisation of Hip- Hop sub-genres, and investigate how the relationship between synthesis and the sample-based process has evolved throughout the style’s trajectory.

Nick Wilson: The Synth Solo: Rupture in the fabric of recorded music

Following the development of the Moog synthesizer electronically-generated instrumental playing was able to be introduced into a wide range of musical contexts beyond the Western classical avant-garde, where electronic music had largely been located to that point. Case studies in popular music from the mid-60s and into the 1970s see the synthesizer solo acting as a rupture in the medium of recorded music as it was then understood. This idea of a sonic rupture can be seen as an extension from the use of guitar distortion in blues and rock’n’roll. However the synthesizer as an instrument was qualitatively different to what had gone before, thus making this rupture more explicit.

David Prescott-Steed: Gassing for a Synth: A Self-Reflexive Approach to the Psycho-Social Contexts of Gear Acquisition Syndrome

Denoting a person’s pathological compulsion to possess an object, Gear Acquisition Syndrome (G.A.S.) is used on forums and in articles both inside and outside of the music scene(s). It suggests that worldwide users and consumers of audio gear are familiar with the allure of potential purchases and the concomitant belief that an effects pedal, synthesiser, guitar or sampler for sale is precisely what is needed to complete a rig and extinguish object-desire forever. Despite this widespread understanding, little attention is given to the psycho-social contexts of a pathology that distracts us from our practices by disillusioning us with the tools that we already have, impacting negatively on our ability to be creatively productive.

Nino Auricchio and Paul Borg: New Modular Instruments and Performance Practice

Modular synthesizers present a new, perhaps rediscovered, paradigm in musical performance.  There is often a minimum level of observable physical gesture in the use of modular synthesizers, which challenges the convention of exertion in musical performance. The primary cause for this disruption to the traditional musical paradigm of exertion in performance is the interface and operation of the modular synthesizer.  These are systems where individual modules have specific functionality yet require the performer to connect and manipulate those modules to realise a meaningful sonic output.
This chapter discusses several areas relating to this new paradigm and asks: to what extent do modular synthesizers afford the ability to perform in a ‘live’ manner and what are the factors that dictate how that performance might be interpreted?  Does the apparent disconnect between perceived gesture and corresponding output assist to solidify the abstract nature of the music with the observed performance? Is the performer a ‘ring master’ of a kind of ‘sonic circus’, where the modular synthesizer can be described as having artistic personality? 

Warren Burt: Microtonal Possibilities of Various iPad Apps

Although well developed for computers, microtonal possibilities have been slow to be implemented in iPad apps.  However, a number of apps have appeared which both use microtonal resources and generate files for microtonal scales which can be used in other apps.  The computer-standard Scala file format is supported by a number of programs, but a number of programs use their own proprietary methods of scale generation as well.  Some microtonal scale generating programs have their own internal sound sources, but other programs allow microtonal scale files to control any kind of sampled or synthesized sound.  Some of the apps demonstrated and discussed here include Droneo, Virtual ANS, Wilsonic, Scale Gen, SoundSquares, World Scales, and the microtonal capable synth apps Ondes, Shoom, Sunrizer, Thumbjam, Z3TA+, and Gestrument.