‘Buchla Synthesisers’, Donald Buchla. USA, 1966.

Buchla Series 100
Buchla Series 100 ‘Buchla Box’

Donald Buchla created his first electronic instruments in 1960 in response to a commission from the avant-garde composer Morton Subotnik. Subotnik was searching for a replacement for the large complex electronic music studios of the day where most ‘serious’ avant-garde music was composed and recorded: for example RAI studio Milan and WDR Studio Köln, Germany and GRM Paris, France . These studios consisted of multiple individual oscillators, processor units, filters and mixers that, with the help of trained technicians (each of the studios had its own unique system), could be manually patched together. The advent of transistor technology allowed much of this process to be miniaturised into a single portable, standardised version of the electronic music studio but restaining the modular, patchable approach:1Trevor Pinch, Frank Trocco (2004), Analog Days, Harvard University Press.

Series 100 from the original brochure of the San Francisco Tape studio.

The offspring of a technology which is itself but half a century old, electronic music is in its infancy. Instruments specifically designed for its production have been crude and generally unavailable. Therefore, the basic objectives for development of the Modular Electronic Music System were:

1. The achievement of direct, immediate control of musical parameters. Instruments should be played in real time, eliminating such note-forming routines as: set frequency – start recorder – stop recorder – measure – cut – splice – repeat, etc.

2. Compatibility of all equipment, Rules for interconnecting equipment to be straight-forward and consistent. Interfacing with external equipment (recorders, tuners, microphones, etc.) should be readily accomplished.

3. Fully transistorized circuitry, employing conservative design and high quality components. Reliable operation with minimal maintenance must be realized.

4. A special requirement for the system was that the equipment be lightweight and portable, thus making feasible its use in the composer’s home, the concert hall, and on tour.

5. Without compromising other design objectives, cost should be low. Power supplies and cabinetry should be common to several unity, and modular construction should be employed to permit economical system expansion.

2The Modular Electronic Music System, (1960), San Francisco Tape Music Center, 2.
Donald Buchla
Donald Buchla

With a $500 grant from the Rockefeller Foundation Buchla started building his first modular synthesisers in 1963 at the  San Francisco Tape Music Center, the hub of experimental and electronic music at the time, founded by  composers Morton Subotnick and Ramon Sender and used by artists such as  Terry Riley, Pauline Oliveros, Steve Reich, William Maginnis and Tony Martin. Buchla’s early synthesisers were experimental in design reflecting the experimental music they were intended to produce. Buchla’s designs utilised many unique and unusual features such touch sensitive and resistance sensitive plates. One of Buchla’s innovative inventions from this period was the first analogue sequencer.

Buchla Associate’s  first production model synthesiser was the Buchla Series 100 or ‘Buchla Box’ (or ‘Electronic Music Box’ as Buchla preferred ): a keyboardless modular synthesiser.  The Buchla Box was manufactured in 1966 through a licensing deal with CBS/Fender – a deal that quickly stalled as CBS/Fender pulled out citing a lack of   but  (who soon closed the deal, seeing no future in electronic instruments).

The Series 100 was an innovative electronic instrument with a logically laid out, intuitive front panel allowing the user to patch and route modules with patch cords (To avoid confusion, the Series 100 uniquely, and unlike the Moog Modular, used separate patch cords for output and control voltages allowing the patching of multiple control voltages with stack-able ‘Banana’ patch cords) designed primarily with the electronic music composer in mind . The manual control of the instrument reflected the concerns of the time around microtonality and the limitations of the tempered scale keyboard; Buchla, very much in the ‘serious’ experimental music camp designed the instrument to be set up and run to produce a continuous piece; more of an electronic music studio than an instrument per-se. The composer could trigger and manipulate multiple parameters using an array of pressure sensitive touch pads or ‘Kinaesthetic input ports’ to free themselves from the constraints of a standard keyboard:

“They [the ports] were all capacitance-sensitive touch-plates, or resistance-sensitive in some cases, organized in various sorts of arrays…I saw no reason to borrow from a keyboard, which is a device invented to throw hammers at strings, later on, for operating switches for electronic organs and so-on. A keyboard is dictatorial. When you’ve got a black and white keyboard there it’s hard to play anything but keyboard music – And when there’s not a black and white keyboard you get into the knobs and the wires and the interconnections and timbres, and you get involved in many other aspects of the music, and it’s a far more experimental way. It’s appealing to fewer people but it’s more exciting”
Donald Buchla

3Don Buchla https://moogfoundation.org/remembering-synthesizer-innovator-don-buchla-1937-2016/ retrieved 06-08-2021
The original Buchla Box - signed by Ken Kessey
The original Buchla Box – signed by Ken Kesey

One of the main innovations of the series 100 was the inclusion of one of the first analogue sequencer modules ; Three sequencers were fit into the first Buchla synth, two with eight stages, the third with 16

” There were three voltage-controlled outputs for each stage. I used to cascade two sequencers so that they would run simultaneously, giving you six voltages per stage. One voltage would control pitch, another spatial location, the third amplitude. Then one, which was really clever, would control the pulse generator that was controlling the sequencer, so that you could determine the absolute rhythm. You could literally program a very complex rhythm over a long period of time, for example, by running five stages against 13.'”
Morton Subotnick

Modules of the ‘Buchla Box’ :

Module Number Description
M.101 wooden case for 25 modules
M.106 six channel mixer
M.107 voltage-controlled mixer
M.110 Dual Voltage-controlled Gates
M.111 Dual Ring Modulator
M.112 12 touch-controlled voltage sources (capacitive keyboard)
M.114 10 touch-controlled voltage sources (capacitive keyboard)
M.115 power supply
M.123 Sequential Voltage Source (8-step sequencer)
M.124 patchboard
M.130 Dual Envelop Generator
M.132 wave-form synthesizer
M.140 timing pulse generators
M.144 Dual Square-wave Generator
M.146 Sequential Voltage Source (sequencer, 16 step X 3 layer)
M.148 Harmonic Generator
M.150 Frequency Counter
M.156 Dual Control Voltage Counter
M.158 Dual Sine / Sawtooth Oscillators (VCOs)
M.160 White Noise Generator
M.165 Dual Random Voltage Source or ‘Source Of Uncertainty’
M.170 Dual Microphone Amplifier
M.171 Dual Instrument Pre-amplifier
M.175 Dual Equalizer / Line Driver
M.180 Dual Attack Generator
M.185 Frequency Shifter
M.190 Dual Reverberator
M.191 sharp cut-off filter
M.192 dual low pass filter
M.194 bandpass filter
M.195 octave formant filter
M.196 phase shifter

The Series 100 was followed by the Buchla Series 200 Electronic Music Box in 1970. The ‘Buchla Box’ was much used during the Acid Test psychedelic happenings of the Haight-Ashbury era by rock groups such as the Grateful Dead (“and later, provided the sounds for R2D2 in the film series Star Wars” – corrected – see comments section).

Buchla Series 200e of 1970. image: Sound on Soun 2005

Around this time affordable mini-computers became available and Buchla created the first digitally controlled analogue synthesiser, the Buchla 500 series in 1971. This was followed by the ‘Buchla Music Easel’ in 1972  Touché (1978), the Buchla 400 (1982), the Buchla 700 (1987). More recent products have included MIDI controllers and re-vamped versions of the Series 200.

Buchla Music Easel 1972
Buchla Music Easel 1972
Buchla Series 700
Buchla Series 700


References:

  • 1
    Trevor Pinch, Frank Trocco (2004), Analog Days, Harvard University Press.
  • 2
    The Modular Electronic Music System, (1960), San Francisco Tape Music Center, 2.
  • 3
    Don Buchla https://moogfoundation.org/remembering-synthesizer-innovator-don-buchla-1937-2016/ retrieved 06-08-2021

9 thoughts on “‘Buchla Synthesisers’, Donald Buchla. USA, 1966.”

  1. Subotnick has mentioned a $500 grant from the Rockefeller Foundation in interviews but I’ve never heard or a $200K grant. An online inflation calculator says that $200K would have been the equivalent of $1,628,439 USD in 2017, whereas $500 would be just over $4,000 in 2017 and this sort of figure seems much more likely. I’d welcome a source for the $200K figure if you have one but I don’t think it’s correct.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *