How did you learn sound synthesis

Modular synthesizersSound synthesis from tangled cables

Music: Notwist "Signals"

Cables, plugs, knobs - and those brightly flashing lights over and over again.

Micha Acher: "In the course of the entire record, it actually became more and more important to deal with the electronics analogously: That everything doesn't happen in the computer, but simply with an analog, old system."

It looks more like a measuring device in the research laboratory than a musical instrument.

Robert Langer: "There's a lot more life in there. Even in a very elementary tone that only runs through a filter, a lot more happens than when it is now generated as a calculation result in the computer."

No keyboard like the conventional analog or digital synthesizer: the tones are modulated by turning buttons and changing cables.

Mario Schönhofer: "Sometimes it can be very sexy when you have to scurry back and forth between the cables. And then you change your way."

A touch of the sound matter - a feeling, an experience, an exploration of the sound structure.

Peter Pfaff: "It's unfinished music, it is constantly in flux, it is constantly being redeveloped and it sounds different every time."

Music: Notwist "Signals"

Electronic avant-garde and pop meet

Music: Kraftwerk "Computer Liebe"

Düsseldorf: endless expanses. The year is 1981. Ralf Hütter, Florian Schneider, Karl Bartos and Wolfgang Flür are working in their Kling-Klang-Studio three years after "Die Mensch-Maschine" on the sound for the album "Computerwelt".

Music: Kraftwerk "Computer Liebe"

The sound search of the electronic avant-garde blurs with the pop compatibility of the mainstream. The modular synthesizer becomes the agent provocateur of our emotions - long before dating portals behind mobile flat screens.

Music: Kraftwerk "Computerliebe" ("... I'm alone, all alone again / Staring at the TV screen, staring at the TV screen / Have nothing to do tonight, nothing to do tonight / I need ' a rendez-vous, I need a rendez-vous ... ")

Bubbling rhythms, enveloped by a pampered melody: "Computer Liebe" by Kraftwerk - this pop song contains all the eroticism of the sound synthesis of the analog synthesizer. Sound and technology: warm and true, or sometimes cool and calculated. We are probably hearing a polymoog here - the experts in the internet community of various music forums are not entirely in agreement.

Music: Radiohead "Idioteque"

What is certain, however, is that a good 20 years later, in the piece "Idioteque", Radiohead conjured up the icicle-cold beats to illustrate an approaching apocalypse from a modular synthesizer from the South German company Doepfer. Modular, i.e. made up of a wide variety of filter and oscillator components - analog and not digital. Synthetically produced sounds of a dystopian narration.

Music: Radiohead "Idioteque" ("Who's in a bunker? / Who’s in a bunker? / Women and children first / And the children first / And the children ...")

Like the vinyl record, or the music cassette, it was never gone, but the longing for the haptic experience in our thoroughly digital age gives the modular synthesizer a second spring. Or the third? Retro chic is booming.

Music: Hot Butter "Popcorn"

Robert Langer: "The digital is just very perfect, it can do an incredible amount. But on the one hand it lacks the haptic, this direct access that I turn a knob and have every parameter, every function right there, so to speak. And the quality of the sound is just clearly a different one. "

Music: The Streams "You"

We visit a small company for modular synthesizers in southern Germany, meet visitors and manufacturers of the first synthesizer festival in Munich and let former members of LaBrassBanda explain the fascination of modular synthesizers to us. But first we stop by Markus and Micha Acher from The Notwist in the rehearsal room.

Visit to The Notwist in Weilheim

Music: The Notwist "Run Run Run"

The Upper Bavarian Alpine foothills: half an hour by train from Munich to Weilheim. Lush green hills against a bright blue sky, bobbing plants on murky waters - there a neglected homestead, there rugged spruce forests.
Markus Acher is waiting at the station square - Zauselbart, glasses and parka. Weilheim in Upper Bavaria: 20,000 inhabitants. A short wave of greeting. He is phoning. Dark blue small car, two child seats on the back seat.

Almost ten minutes by car from the Weilheim city center: The industrial area with a car workshop, curtain tailoring, tool dealer and - The Notwist's music studio. A converted commercial hall, about 80 square meters in size, with red carpeting. Countless instruments stand and lie spread out in the room.

Markus Acher: "Here is an old drum kit, a harmonium, a piano, a Hammond organ, a Wurlitzer piano, various amplifiers, percussion instruments, glockenspiel, xylophone, keyboards, more keyboards, even more keyboards, even more keyboards and more a keyboard - and a coffee machine. "

Modular synthesizers are no longer in The Notwist's studio. You can still hear them on their 2016 album "Close to the glass". The DJ and producer Martin Gretschmann alias Acid Pauli brought them in at the time - he is no longer part of the band.

Micha Acher: "On the first slide on this record, Martin bought two or three parts for a modular synth system. That sound was there too and we thought it was really great. Then we started with the piece and then in the course of this entire recording ... That was a table that was so high ... He built a wall with 50 modular plug-in systems and worked his way completely into this modular system and thought that was great. "

Music: The Notwist "Close to the glass"

Micha Acher: "Every time we thought: Oh, madness, parts again! And that always sounded wacky."

Music: The Notwist "Close to the glass"

Micha Acher: "Like a banged professor behind his wall and screwed around with these things. We sent all kinds of things through there."

Music: The Notwist "Into Another Tune"

Bach with the synthesizer: a huge success

In 1964, the instrument maker Robert Moog presented the Moog synthesizer named after him. Four years later, Wendy Carlos caused a sensation with the album "Switched-On Bach": Classical music on the modular synthesizer? The avant-garde composers are cheering, orchestra musicians have fears of existence and have been number 1 on the Billboard Classic Charts for almost three years.

Music: Wendy Carlos "Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 In G Major (Second Movement)"

The American avant-garde musician and music teacher Morton Subotnick wrote music history with a Buchla synthesizer as early as 1966. The composition 'Silver Apples of The Moon' is considered the first electronic record and became a milestone in avant-garde music.

Music: Morton Subotnick - Silver Apples of the Moon

At the beginning of the 1970s, the modular synthesizer had arrived in the mainstream as well as in the underground and the avant-garde. In the ethereal Krautrock by Popol Vuh you can hear him in 1971 in the epic "In den Garten Pharaos".

Music: Popol Vuh "In the Pharaoh's Gardens"

Or in Tangerine Dream's mystical "Rubycon Pt. 1" from 1975: The modular Moog synthesizer.

Music: Tangerine Dream "Rubycon Pt. 1"

But it can also be heard in a guitar smash hit by The Who, the modular synthesizer: "Won`t Get Fooled Again" from 1971:

Music: The Who "Won't Get Fooled Again"

In the 1980s, cheap digital synthesizers replaced modular synthesizers. It was only through acid house and techno that some musicians rediscovered the special qualities of analog equipment in the early 1990s. And some hobbyists even started developing new modular synthesizers. The interest in these devices increased, the analog bass sound boomed in the 1990s in EDM, electronic dance music:

Music: Snap! "Rhythm Is A Dancer"

Comeback for the modular synthesizer

At the turn of the millennium, it became comparatively quiet about the modular synthesizer. The varnish is off the mp3 digitization and its clinical sterility in the sound. Only with the experimental pop avant-garde at the beginning of the 21st century did he return to the stage. The modular synthesizer is cult: analogue like the tape machine, haptic like the vinyl record and sexy like the prepared piano. In techno, after the hype about digitization, producers are again handling cables and knobs. Clicking in presets on screens has lost its appeal. Artists like Luke Abbott, Richard Devine and James Holden celebrate the old devices with their experimental electronics:

Music: James Holden "Gone Feral"

The producers of the IDM, the so-called "intelligent electronic music", like to put their components together themselves with cables. Ambient, indietronica, clicks & cuts, glitch - the modular synthesizer is also a sought-after sound machine in various new music genres.

Music: Jan Jelinek "Rock In The Video Age"

And the sounds of the modular synthesizer are timelessly fascinating anyway!

Music: Daft Punk "Giogio by Moroder"

Peter Pfaff: "The synthesizer is a very free instrument. It just doesn't have this entire occidental tradition of court music or bourgeois culture, because it didn't really develop until the 20th century."

Munich, summer 2018: For the first time, a synthesizer festival is taking place in the Bavarian capital. "Knobs & Wires" - in German: knobs and cable plugs. One is screwed on, the other go into sockets. Sure, the mechanical principle of every modular synthesizer.

Matthias Schmidt: "For me, synthesizers are somewhere on the border between art and music. So many artists who also perform with us now, or are generally active in this field, also build their own devices, so they are basically scientists too , or at least physicists who know what's going on inside the devices. And often these are also beautiful devices. I think: Fine arts, science and music come together there. "

Peter Pfaff and Matthias Schmidt helped organize the first synthesizer festival in Munich. Both play and tinker with modular synthesizers themselves - with Peter Pfaff and his music project Eshna_Tron that sounds like reverberated spaceship corridors:

Music: Sarah-Gonputh "I`m still in love" (Eshna_Tron-Remix)

Peter Pfaff: "I've never learned an instrument. I always wanted to. My parents always said: You don't have enough meat for it, that's wasted money, you're just too nervous for it. That didn't stop me, me for it to be interested and to collect things over the years that in some combination have repeatedly generated electronic sounds. "

John Dinger: "Ah, you are already recording? Can we stop? Just that I can set up, so that it sounds good."

One of the performing musicians on "Knobs & Wires" is John Dinger. He would like to start wiring properly before demonstrating his self-made synthesizer backstage. The American, born in 1978, has joined the Czech community "Bastl-Instruments": sound tinkerers who have dedicated themselves entirely to modular synths.

John Dinger: "Right now I kind of have this a little bit of an out-of-tune melody ..."

And this is what his acid house track, generated in real time, sounds like: kick drum, bass, hi-hat, sound surface.

John Dinger: "My favorite thing about working with modular synthesis is working with the instrument itself. You are kind of the conductor and the audience at the same time."

Interesting thought: With the modular synthesizer, for John Dinger the musician becomes a conductor and an audience at the same time, so to speak.

Music: Roman wing "Dust"

Synthesizer tinkerers are wrongly forgotten

Female pioneers are also an issue at the "Knobs & Wires" festival.

Kalle Aldis Laar: "They existed, and they were also very influential, that is understandable. There was also a lot of communication among each other, there was no lack of that. Similar to the arts, yes, too. But there is a total lack of presence. "

Kalle Aldis Laar - radio play author, DJ and vinyl collector - gives an insight into the world of unjustly forgotten sound tinkerers in a lecture.

Music: Laurie Anderson "Oh Superman"

From Ada Lovelace, the computer pioneer at the beginning of the 19th century, to the musical art icon Laurie Anderson: A group of strong women in the background, pioneering legends such as Stockhausen, Can and Radiohead, a feminist minority in the male-dominated scene in electroacoustic music.

There are hardly any women in the audience at the "Knobs & Wires" festival in Munich in summer 2018. Almost only men turn the buttons on the dozens of synthesizers on display. The scene is aware of that! That is probably why there is also the workshop "Modulars For Beginners - safe space for women" by the Czech Nikol Štrobachova. The two friends Flo and Simone from Munich visited him.

Festival-goer: "It was a bit overwhelming for me at the beginning. I have to honestly admit that. Because it's just quite complex where you have to put something. But it was fun and in the end we also had a good sound. "
Andi Hörmann: "It's amazing that so few women are here."
Festival visitor: "To be honest, we just talked about it."
Another festival visitor: "I think it's just a man's domain. That's why there are few women represented here. Although it is just as accessible or feasible for them."

Nikol Štrobachova: "I am amazed myself. The women are really talented. After this three-hour workshop, the participants put together a really great track. I recorded it."

It is not talent that is lacking, but courage

Nikol Štrobachova himself is surprised and a little at a loss as to why so few women are into synthesizers. They can do the same thing, she says, they should only be encouraged more. She is very enthusiastic about the track created in the workshop and plays a recording on her smartphone:

Nikol Štrobachova: "It's not about being able to or not being able to, but rather about encouraging women to do so. I don't know why that has not yet been the case."

A joy to play and experiment, in keeping with the idea of ​​a "modular synthesizer": an open system, infinitely expandable. One thing leads to another: turning the buttons here may also mean turning the story. With the first synthesizer festival "Knobs & Wires" in Munich there was also a little practical feminism. Emancipation of sound synthesis: With the musician, but of course also in the sound.

Festival-goer: "Fascinating is actually the unpredictable, what is ultimately achievable, what you just couldn't achieve with the preset things of normal synthesizers. If only after you have studied the synthesizer in depth. But you can reach so playfully. "

Peter Pfaff: "In the end, that's what Lee Scratch Perry said about dub music: It's" unfinished music "," it's only versions ". So it's not a work that is finished and then reproduced, it's always in flux. It's a constant, creative process. Every time you put the thing together and it always sounds a little different. You learn to control it because you build it yourself, you put it yourself , but it's a new game every time and it sounds different every time. "

Music: Soulwax "Essentials Three"

The brothers Stephen and David Dewaele alias "2 Many DJs" from Ghent, Belgium, released a real homage to the modular synthesizer as a band Soulwax 2018 with their album "Essentials". Danceable, groovy, intoxicating. The modular synthesizer in the band context as a contemporary high-end variant. The pieces are numbered: "Essential", one to twelve. Soulwax is about the essentials, the essentials in sound, sound as synthesis: artistic input, musical output, composition as a means to an end. To dance!

Music: Soulwax "Essentials Eleven"

Robert Langer: "My name is Robert Langer. My motivation was to make modular synthesizers really affordable so that a lot more people could get access to them."

"Murnau Innovation Quarter". A market town with almost 12,000 inhabitants, not far from Garmisch-Partenkirchen, directly on the Staffelsee. Robert Langer has his synthesizer workshop here. A room in a former hospital, in which the creative and cultural industries moved in with various start-ups after the shutdown. "Tangible Waves" - that is, waves that can be touched, touched and felt - is what Robert Langer calls his synthesizer forge, which he set up in 2017 through crowdfunding. The waveforms in the sound generation, even the musical layman, should make them vibrate. His claim is easy access to the modular plug-in systems of the synthesizer culture.

Robert Langer: "I saw that a lot of people are very interested in the technology, but this entry barrier, I'll say two to three thousand euros, was too high for many.There are also a lot of people who just - and I can totally understand that because I've always been that type of guy - have fun experimenting with sounds. It's just a very fascinating field to deal with timbres, with modular synthesizers like this you can really go to the root of the tone generation and discover: How does filtering work, what about the overtones when you remove them ? "

Andi Hörmann: "I see a lot of orange boxes here, the components are inside."

Robert Langer: "There are components in there. The way is always that you first develop the electronic circuit as such. In principle, the combination of electronic components, resistors, capacitors, integrated circuits, and so on, if the current flows through something specific. You usually do that on breadboards like this, because you can simply develop and refine such a circuit experimentally and find out the exact values. And when that's done, the next step is to create a so-called printed circuit board . These are plastic plates with copper tracks on them. And then the components are soldered on in small format.

The circuit boards behind the modules, oscillators and filters, for pitch and depth. Robert Langer screws the individual components of the modular synthesizer together in his workshop room, which is only about 15 square meters in size. The entry-level model is around 400 euros. And how does it sound?

Robert Langer: "This is a demo device that already has a lot in it."

Andi Hörmann: "About the size of a ... A little bigger than a computer keyboard."

Robert Langer: "Yes, you could say that. A little deeper. That is 45 by 22 centimeters. And these are all so individual modules: ten centimeters high, two and a half centimeters wide, with a few controls on it. On the upper edge: sockets for inputs and Outputs. Yes, and these individual modules can be connected to one another with such small plug-in cables. They are basically independent of one another and only make sense when they are connected via the cables.

Atmo: Synthesizer from "Tangible Waves" - I

Robert Langer: "So we just hear a square tone. That is a very simple tone. But this is the raw material of such a synthesizer. With a controller I can now regulate the frequency, i.e. the pitch. And the next step would be to go through a filter now. "
Andi Hörmann: "So change the cable."
Robert Langer: "I now go from the oscillator to the input of a filter. The pitch is the same, but you can now hear the sound much more muffled. And if I turn up the filter further, then I can make the sound more overtone-like Or I can bring in a resonance through a filter like this. It's almost like a whistle when it is very extreme. "
Andi Hörmann: "It's almost inexhaustible because there are always new nuances."
Robert Langer: "Right. It is precisely the nuances that make it. These are often minimal controller movements, where suddenly some overtone component, some resonance then stands out, and you then play with it.

Atmo: Synthesizer from "Tangible Waves" - II

Music: Thomas Tallis "Spem in alium"

Robert Langer: "I also like listening to Renaissance music, for example, I think medieval choral music is fantastic. There are elements in this polyphony for me that I also know from electronics. Especially what was written in the Middle Ages , so 15th century. I think Thomas Tallis, for example, is fantastic. These layers of choirs, of moods, it is wonderful. Spem in alium, for example, a fantastic piece, also of unbelievable breadth. "

Music: Thomas Tallis "Spem in alium"

Transcendence via modular sound synthesis

Robert Langer: "It's also exciting to see that there was a certain type of statement 500 years ago, just with different means. That it might ... How would I put it? That there is such a space, beyond the seemingly usual reality, which one can also experience by closing one's eyes and over the ear a certain sound in the whole ego triggers what brings one into this room. "

Music: Thomas Tallis "Spem in alium"

Music: The Streams "It's About Time"

The ear as a door to consciousness: transcendence via modular sound synthesis. The Munich duo "Die Ströme" has dedicated themselves entirely to the modular synthesizer since 2015. Tobi Weber and Mario Schönhofer played electric bass and percussion with the wild Bavarian brass band LaBrassBanda for years.

Mario Schönhofer: "Well, when we started at LaBrassBanda, we actually had a modular system with us on the first tour because we wanted to try different, new things. And the general concept of LaBrassBanda is not that completely different from techno -Music, as you might originally believe because of the instrumentation. There are very technoid elements in LaBrassBanda. "

Music: LaBrassBanda "Autobahn"

Tobi Weber: "It's not classical, Bavarian brass music or traditional music now. We also played techno pieces, but with acoustic instruments. The big difference was rather: away from acoustic instruments to electronic instruments."

Music: The Streams "It's Time"

And now there are two head-high modular synthesizers with components from Doepfer in their rehearsal room. In the 1990s, Dieter Doepfer created a global standard for building and installing sound generator components with his open source philosophy in the development of modular synthesizers - the norm for the modules of the synthesizer, the "Eurorack" format, so to speak. "Die Ströme" work closely with Doepfer and have already developed modules with him.

Mario Schönhofer: "What we are doing here now is simply the basic version of how we start. We now have a sequencer, for example, a 16-step sequencer with which we can generate a lot of things live. We can now, for example set that the sequencer plays eight notes in a row, that it plays notes of the C minor chord ... "

Atmo: modular synthesizer

Mario Schönhofer: "We can now generate different things here on the sequencer, different pitches ... We can now take notes out of here, for example ... You can also expand the sequence to 16 notes, for example ... I switch that off for a moment. The second track could you put on the filter, that means: That a dull or brilliant sound comes ...

Atmo: modular synthesizer

Mario Schönhofer: "You always have to open and close the regulator here. And this regulator can be automated using an analog voltage ..."

Atmo: modular synthesizer

Mario Schönhofer: "And so you can automate every parameter live with the sequencers. And you can still let the sequencers influence each other, which of course leads to very exciting results live, which are sometimes predictable, sometimes unpredictable."
Andi Hörmann: "That is also the eternal attraction, this human-machine interaction."
Tobi Weber: "Totally. You have a sound concept, you know the instrument, the machine can do that. But at the same time the instrument influences you again. Or sometimes there is this" happy accident "where something happens that you don't expect and then you might think it's great and carry on with it. Yes, exactly, this interplay between man and machine. "
Andi Hörmann: "And what would fit best now? Would you like a song by yourself!"
Mario Schönhofer: "A new number that is only available on YouTube, that most of our people know, we played it live very often, is called Panta Rhei. It can be seen on the Internet, in various live streams."

Audio: The streams "Panta Rhei"

Mario Schönhofer: "Panta Rhei is practically an eternal change. The saying comes from a Greek philosopher. I don't know what drugs he was on. At some point he stepped into the water and noticed that it is never the same water that is on you In principle, Panta Rhei stands for permanent change ... "
Andi Hörmann: "... and for the modular synthesizer, and for the streams."

Plug into the socket, plug & play, colorful cables - from one module to another. Turn the button, the LED lights flash. There is something anachronistic about the modular synthesizer in our thoroughly digitized times. We have heard it in pop music since the 1960s. He was never gone - and never will be. An organic instrument that moves rhizome-like through music history - and also leaves traces in your very personal record collection.

Music: Kraftwerk "The Human Machine"

Mario Schönhofer: "So the first thing I can really remember so clearly, I should have been five or six years old, that was from Kraftwerk" Mensch-Maschine "on my father's record shelf. And Jean Michel Jarre" Oxygene ". For me that was music like I have never heard it before. And the sound of these records was so special for me that I thought: What kind of instrument is it? eleven or so I thought to myself: With a synthesizer I can somehow produce any sound that I imagine in my head. "

Music: Jean Michel Jarre "Oxygene Pt. 2"

The electronic sound synthesis with the modular synthesizer stands for the joy of experimentation, for free music-making, for the anarchy in the analog and for the emancipation of the sound from the structured notation - and the infinite breadth of the sound.