November 15, 2012

Don Buchla - The Electronics Genius

Don Buchla is widely regarded as one of the major pioneers in electronic musical instruments; He constructed the first voltage-controlled synthesizer in 1963. Since then, he has produced a variety of conceptually and technically advanced instruments, many of which are in use in university and private studios around the world. He has consulted for several instrument manufacturers, including CBS, Kimball Piano, Zeta Music, Yamaha International, Gibson Guitars, and E-Mu Systems. Don Buchla has served as technical director of California Institute of the Arts, technical director of the Electric Symphony, co-director of the Artists' Research Collective. Don has received grants from the Veterans' Administration (guidance devices for the blind), the Guggenheim Foundation (music languages), and the National Endowment for the Arts (composition). He recently received the prestigious 2002 SEAMUSLifetime Achievement Award "in recognition of his pioneering achievements and lifetime contribution to the art and craft of electro-acoustic music". Hundreds of his unique instruments continue to be in use and vintage Buchla synthesizers continue to be in strong demand. Don received a degree from UC Berkeley in Physics in 1960, and holds several patents in the fields of optics and musical instruments.

He developed one of the first synthesizer systems on America’s west coast, just as Robert Moog was developing his own, soon to be more famous system on the east coast. Don Buchla’s own creations were used by pioneering composers Morton Subotnik (on Silver Apples of the Moon), Ramon Sender and others. Buchla’s Box, as it was known, became a part of Ken Kesey’s ‘Acid Test’ setup, squawking and skronking away as test subjects lost their minds and found them again, and he has a cameo in Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test. Meanwhile, to earn a living, he worked on a number of projects for NASA , developing life support systems for rabbits in space, amongst other things.

Don grew up with a passion for music and a passion for engineering. When he combined the two loves, he created electronic musical instruments the world had never dreamed of before. His early synthesizer pre-dates the work Robert Moog was doing on the East Coast while Don was working in Berkeley, California. Composer Morton Subotnick commissioned Don to build an electronic musical instrument for live performances and recording. Don Buchla was definitely part of the avant-garde. He has been called a mad scientist, a genius, an innovator, a recluse, an iconoclast, and has gathered a horde of fiercely loyal admirers by following his own visionary path, and dancing to his own muse.

The System 100 Series (1963) – Buchla 101

Buchla was born in 1937 in South Gate, California, and studied physics, physiology and music. He formed his electronic music equipment company, Buchla and Associates in 1962 in Berkley. Buchla was commissioned by avant-garde music composers Morton Subotnik and Ramon Seder, both of the San Francisco Tape Music Center, to create an electronic instrument for live performance. Under a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation Buchla completed his first modular synthesizer 1963. The result was the Buchla Series 100, which he began selling in 1966. Buchla's synthesizers experimented in control interfaces, such as touch-sensitive plates. In 1969 the Series 100 was sold to CBS, who soon after dropped the line, not seeing the synthesizer market as a profitable area.

In 1970 the Buchla 200 Series Electric Music Box was released and was manufactured until 1985. Buchla created the Buchla Series 500, the first digitally controlled analog synthesizer, in 1971. Shortly after, the Buchla Series 300 was released, which combined the Series 200 with microprocessors. The Music Easel, a small, portable, all-in-one synthesizer was released in 1972. The Buchla 400, with a video display, was released in 1982. In 1987, Buchla released the fully MIDI enabled Buchla 700.

Beginning in the 1990s, Buchla began designing alternative MIDI controllers, such as the Thunder, Lighning and Marimba Lumina. With the recent resurgence of interest in analog synthesizers Buchla has released a revamped 200 series called the 200e.

NIME-05, the 5th International Conference on New Interfaces for Musical Expression, held in Vancouver, Canada in 2005, featured a keynote lecture by Don Buchla as well as a sizable exhibition of many of the instruments he and his team have created over the years.

Historical Overview

Don Buchla created the 100 Series Modular Electronic Music System

The 200 Series Electric Music Box

Minicomputers became affordable, and Don built the first hybrid (digitally controlled analog synthesizer) - the 500 Series and along came microcomputers and the Series 300 (using series 200 analog modules combined with 300 series digital modules)

A hot little analog performance instrument, the Music Easel was introduced

Four hybrid (digital/analog) instruments. Don conjured up the Touché

The Buchla 400, featuring an outrageous video display

The Buchla 406

Introducing of the Buchla 700, now enabled with MIDI up the Wahzoo

Don shifted his attention to controllers and designed the Thunder

The Lighning

For Oberheim (then a Gibson subsidiary), he designed the OB-Mx

The Lightning II

Don built the gold edition of the Marimba Lumina

He added the silver Marimba Lumina 3.5

The smaller Marimba Lumina 2.5 is born

Introducing the Piano Bar, now manufactured and distributed by Moog Music Inc.

Photo: Richard Ecclestone

Several new modules, calling the 200e Series

Introducing the Lightning III

The new Buchla Music Easel, Buchla 272e Polyphonic Tuner
Buchla Electronic Musical Instruments is the new incarnation of Buchla & Associates