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  • Writer's pictureEric Doades

Social Synths: Buchla & Friends

Join Dmitri on an exploration through the evolving landscape of modern synthesizers at the Buchla & Friends event held in downtown LA last month.

From the innovative offerings of the Buchla Easel to Noise Engineering, Elektron, 1010 Music and the Star Wars vibe of Soma Laboratory’s Terra,  there was a lot to take in. It truly felt like a fusion of a craft fair and makerspace community, and we had a blast.


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Episode Transcript

Machine transcribed


0:00:10 - Dmitri

Welcome back to Music Tectonics. When I was little, I was the type of kid that banged on something to see what kind of noise it would make. Before I got into the music industry, I would pour over liner notes to find out about what was making the sounds I heard. I learned about a West African balafon, a xylophone that not only used dry gourds as resonators but included the membrane of a spider egg to make a cool buzzing sound on certain notes. I collected jaw harps from all over the world, one of which is from Vietnam, and I think they sound the best. They're said to be made from leftover bullet shells from the Vietnam War. Here's a great thumb piano I made out of a suitcase and some hacksaw blades as tines. So you can see why I listen to music for timbre and rhythm more than for lyrics. But that also means I'm looking for less traditional sounds and less traditional places to find those sounds. I'm your Music Tectonics host, Dmitri Vietza. I'm also the founder and CEO of Rock Paper Scissors, the Music Innovation and Music Tech PR and Marketing firm, and last year, when I was at NAMM, the huge musical instrument conference trade fair that you heard us talk about on the last episode, I stumbled onto a postcard for a synth showcase of the SoCal Synth Society and I had to go. It was my favorite part of NAMM 2023. And I went back to their electric sonic madness again this year, where I got to see one of my favorite YouTubers, TrueCuckoo, rocking out on the new Teenage Engineering, KO2 and tons of other creative synth performances, some of whose instruments You're going to hear demoed on today's episode. If you love new instruments and effects, be sure to check out last week's episode recorded on the floor at the NAMM show. 


I recorded today's demos at a new event showcasing synthesizers of all kinds in downtown LA. It was organized by Buchla, a synth company that's been around since the 1960s. Well, it coincided with the NAMM trade show in Anaheim, California, and I saw some of the same people at both this event. It had a very different vibe. It felt more like a craft fair combined with a makerspace than a trade show, with handmade wooden brass and 3D printed tools sharing space with sleek electronics, candy colored buttons and Euro-Rack patch cables, all in an old warehouse with a vaulted wooden ceiling A very warm industrial vibe. Make sure you see some of the photos of the synths in this episode on the blog post that goes with it at musictechtonics.com


All right, In a moment we'll hear from Peter Nybor from Buchla on why he got this event going. What I encountered was an enthusiastic community who love crafting sounds and pushing boundaries with interfaces and what music feels and sounds like. Enough from me, let's hear from the warm, super creative people who were at the event to share their new instruments and tools. You'll hear demos from Soma Laboratory Noise Engineering, Electron and Tenten Music. First up, Peter Nybor of Buchla. 


0:03:08 - Peter

How are you doing, Peter? I'm doing great. So what is this? What are we doing here? So Buchla and Friends is a synth community, a synth expo, a mini should I say minimum viable trade show. We love it. 


0:03:22 - Dmitri

This started as a minimum viable podcast, so we know what you're talking about. There you go. 


0:03:26 - Peter

All right, it's all about minimal and viable. 


0:03:29 - Dmitri

Awesome. So for folks who don't know Buchla, what's the quick sound bite there? 


0:03:33 - Peter

Buchla is really one of the original synthesizer manufacturers and innovators. Don Buchla started making synthesizers in the late 60s, really coming out of from the position of trying to make something for the avant-garde rather than something that makes it for people doing traditional music so that they could understand electronic music. He's like no wait, there's all these weird ideas. I want to make an instrument for that. And so he started making modules and he really made one of the first portable electronic music instruments in the music easel, and that came out around 1973, 1974. 


A lot of his instruments would be spoke kind of like H1 was a little bit different, and then Don just kept going with these unusual, different ideas about synthesis. He was really into additive synthesis rather than subtractive. Everything's a little bit left field when it comes to the Buchla designs and 50 years later, Buchla companies still exist. He passed away in 2015, but the company still exists and is still making the products that he designed. This year we're just starting to ship the newest iteration of the music easel, which is really kind of like a modernized version of it, but it still has the same workflow that the original had, plus a lot of nice additions that help work in the modern studio and towards the modern music mind. 


0:04:53 - Dmitri

Nice, awesome. So when you think about the synth world and this emerging generations of music creators, we're seeing a lot of new types of music being created, created in different ways, not following the traditional models, and so forth. Where do you think the synth world fits into that and what are some trends that you see emerging for this music creation explosion that's happening? 


0:05:15 - Peter

Yeah, I don't know. It's hard to say. With synth, trends are really difficult because the trend has been over really the past really 20 years. There's a lot of these individual manufacturers that have really been empowered by the ability to have a small team make really powerful technology, and so this is partly a result of manufacturing, partly a result of the sort of frameworks that exist to deal with these chips and make these things. The education that's out there. The trend is really kind of like, in a way it's a fragmented, but here at Buchla and France we're trying to create a community around it, right. So we have a lot of different types of synthesizers, different types of approaches to music, but we're all under this one kind of weird quonset hut roof in downtown Los Angeles Awesome great. 


0:06:03 - Dmitri

Well, we're going to go dig in. Thanks so much for taking some time with us and congrats. It looks like a great event. Let's hop over to Peter's demo of Buchla's music easel. 


0:06:13 - Peter

Hey, this is Peter from Buchla. You already met me once, but now I'm going to give you an opportunity to take a listen to what the music easel is about. Here's what's really different about it. So right now you're just hearing a sine tone and most of the size of these days. What they do is they take kind of a simple waveform like this and then take elements away from that. But one of the core things about the music easel and a lot of Don Buchla's oscillators with a build up sound rather than carving sound out. So I can start with the sine tone and blend it with some other waveforms. But then there's also this really great concept of distorting that sine wave, what's called wave folding. So now I'm building up the sound from that really simple sound and I can take some things out of it if I want, and now that's just messing around with sliders, and then I have some other opportunities to make that sound even more complex. And that is kind of the core of how you build a sound, with frequency modulation, amplitude modulation and wave shaping and wave distortion, instead of just trying to take a sound and then carve what you don't like out of it. 


Another thing that Don Buchla was really interested in was taking cues from analog instruments and applying them to electronic instruments. So one of those things is involving the body. So instead of having a piano keyboard that had keys that moved up and down, he incorporated touch technology and that gave the opportunity to sort of have pressure involved. So now we can start to modulate that sound with my body, and that's just applying a gentle pressure to the key, kind of like, instead of the way you use a phone where you're tapping buttons, this actually incorporates pressure, so the expressivity of the body can be part of your music. 


This was kind of a radical idea at the time and Instead of, you know, thinking about this as a bunch of separate modules that can be combined to make music, the music easel kind of combined the core stuff of music expression, time, timbre and kind of gave them all to you in this sort of cybernetic space age interface of knobs and sliders and metal panels. So it's kind of approachable but also kind of scary and it's that tension that makes it really wonderful and it's kind of a, you know, like I said, cybernetic idea where you have this. That was a discipline that really only came about in maybe the 50s and 60s in that space age period, and Don was one of the first to really kind of apply that thinking to electronic music instruments. So it kind of merges the man and the machine, and where you give up some of your own control, you also try to impose some of your own control. So let's try some other things that are kind of fun. 


So in that kind of wacky little tune there there's several things happening that are part me and part technology, and that's kind of the core of what electronic music is about in that, like I said, that cybernetic relationship where you give up some control to the machine but you also take some control back for your own self. So that's kind of an overview of the ethics and the technology and the ideas of the Buchla Music Easel. 


0:10:49 - Dmitri

Now let's hear something that looks and feels like nothing I've ever seen. Soma Labs is a small company that creates what they call organismic synths with truly original form factors and creative tactile interfaces. My eye was caught by the Terra, a slab cut from a tree trunk scattered with metal buttons. 


0:11:08 - Bartok

Hi, this is Bartok. We're at Buchla and Friends. 


0:11:11 - Dmitri

Awesome, Bartok. What is this that we're looking at? We're at the Soma booth. What is this instrument? 


0:11:16 - Bartok

Yeah, this is the Soma Terra. It's one of their newer synthesizer instruments. It's like an organismic synthesizer that reacts to how you touch it. 


0:11:27 - Dmitri

Yeah, it looks like it's got a wooden frame to it. It's got silver and golden buttons kind of spread in a almost looks like your hands kind of the pattern of your hands, and then an arc of some crazy looking knobs with some like glyphs or something on it. 


0:11:43 - Bartok

Yeah, actually you hit it right on the head. The way that it's laid out is very intuitive for your hand position. And then the glyphs just respond correlate to different effects. 


0:11:57 - Dmitri

Well, should we hear what it sounds like you want to just give us some sound and play around with it a little bit. 


0:12:01 - Bartok

Yeah, absolutely so, and then, you can hear that if I gently touch it, the sound slowly comes in, or I can tap it. 


0:12:56 - Dmitri

Wow, that's super cool. So who's using the Soma Terra? What kind of artist is using this? Is this traditional synth artist that's using it, or is this a brand new thing that appeals to people who've never even played synths before? 


0:13:14 - Bartok

Yeah, it could be for both of those. For anybody, it's a brand new synth. We've had a lot of people that stopped by, that have never played with a synth before and they love the immediacy of it. We have a lot of people that are traditional synth players, that like how it reacts to your touch, so I'd say any variety of synth enthusiasts. 


0:13:38 - Dmitri

Yeah, what I like about it is those buttons. They almost look like metal buttons on an old military jacket or something. They have a look like no other instrument and, as you showed us, you're just barely gently touching them or you can slide your fingers across like that and you get different effects. He's just swiping his hands across all of them and almost like strings, except they look more like little crystal balls or something like that, exactly. Yeah. 


0:14:06 - Bartok

So to me, soma is a company that makes you know organismic synthesizers, meaning they invite you to touch them, invite you to interact with them. It's very hands-on and if you look at you know other instruments. That's kind of the feeling just inviting you to play an instrument and not necessarily play a preset. 


0:14:33 - Dmitri

Yeah, great Bartok, thank you so much for taking the time, super fun. 


0:14:36 - Bartok

Oh, thank you. 


0:14:38 - Dmitri

I kind of want one. I'll be back after the break with demos from Noise Engineering, electron and 1010 Music. 


0:14:47 - Shayli

Meet your music tech people. Our next free online event is an open mic, open to everyone who's interested in the future of music and innovation. Introduce yourself and share where you're going this conference season so you can start building your posse and your meeting schedule too. Join us March 6th at 10 am Pacific, 1 pm Eastern, 6 pm UK time. You'll find out who's going to be at South by Southwest and get started making connections before you hit the busy streets of Austin. Find out where the hotspots for music tech are going to be this year. South by can be hard to navigate, so we'll help you build your game plan. Register for free and learn about our monthly seismic activity online event series at MusicTechTonicscom. See you there. Now back to the show. 


0:15:38 - Dmitri

Okay, let's jump right into a demo from Noise Engineering, a small EuroRAC synth maker based in LA. They're known for small, compact modules packed with features with elaborate Latin names and expansive capabilities for sculpting sound. Listen. 


0:15:52 - Marcus

Hi, this is Marcus Cancillo. I'm here at the Noise Engineering booth at Buchla and Friends. Today we're looking at one of our modular synth setups. We're going to be exploring a new synth voice called Inca, soteritas, alia. It's being sequenced by a prototype quantized random vocal source and going through a reverb. 


So this is a pretty simple tone. So just to start, we're going to mess with the timbre a bit so I can add in some distortion, change the wave shape, change my envelope time, and this is all going through Dismotus Versio, which is one of our reverb processors. I'm going to bring up that reverb time a bit, change some of the flavors of the reverb to kind of see what I want to do. I'm going to change our sequence. So this is a pretty simple modular system. We're just using about four modules right now and it's really fun to be able to kind of explore what these things can do. This sequencing style is very generative. You never really know what you're going to get out of it, and so with just a few patch cables, just a few connections and a couple of modules, we can create something that we've never heard before and they'll probably never sound quite the same again, which is part of the fun of modular. 


0:17:28 - Dmitri

Can I ask you a question about this? So if you make something that you love here and you want to make it again, what happens? 


0:17:35 - Marcus

Well, it depends. All of our modules, for the most part, are digital, so they're relatively easy to dial back into a way they sounded before. You just have to remember what the settings are. There's no presets here, there's nothing like that, and you have to remember all your connections. So there's definitely people that do that sort of thing. There's folks that perform, live with these sorts of systems. But the spirit of experimentation is definitely alive in your RAC. 


0:17:57 - Dmitri

Yeah, I mean these, your RAC modular systems are all like that. It's not like this is specific to noise engineering devices or anything, but I'm just curious, since you're here, you've been really quickly set this up for us, plugged in all these wires and pulled all these knobs together and so it sounds like every time you play it it's pretty much going to be different. 


0:18:15 - Marcus

Yeah, that's definitely the case, and that's part of why a lot of folks find it so inspiring. It's a great way to just kind of you know it's an inspiration generator you patch something together you like and it'll just it'll do its own thing, or you can kind of rain that in and make it do what you want. 


0:18:29 - Dmitri

Amazing. This has been super fun. Thanks, marcus, I appreciate you doing this. 


0:18:32 - Marcus

Thanks so much for coming by. 


0:19:00 - Dmitri

Next let's go over to Electron, a big name brand that makes synthesizers, drum machines and groove boxes used by everyone from Tom York to Dell the Funke Homosapien. Let's hear what's new from Electron. 


0:19:14 - Mario

Hey, how's it going? I'm Mario from Electron and we're here showing the analog rhythm 1.70 OS update. 


0:19:21 - Dmitri

So, before we jump into the updates, for people who aren't familiar with this one, how do you describe it? 


0:19:26 - Mario

So analog rhythm. Mark two is a drum machine. It's an analog drum machine with analog circuits so you can design your own sounds and there's a bunch of a few different types of synthesis. So it's not just your basic like bass, drum, kick drum, there's also some melodics as well. But it also has sampling that you layer on top. Per track it's eight voices and 12 tracks and it has individual outs, which allows you, if you want, to break out all your audio into separate tracks. It's really great for the studio, it's very powerful for sound design and it also has a lot of really great performance capabilities. So analog drum machine with sampling and a lot of performance aspects as well too. 


0:20:08 - Dmitri

You know what I want to hear it. What should we start with here? 


0:20:10 - Mario

Let's do it. So we got this beat going on. I resampled it. Let's just listen to that first. So these are all of the new kind of machines playing all at once and I resampled it. So it's really cool. That's one thing that I really love about the analog rhythm is you can make synth sounds and create your own sound, but then resample it, and when you go from synthesis to sampling it's just a whole new world that you can start changing. So if I bring in the drums, so now we're back to the normal synthesis, and if I go here I could start changing. Nice. 


0:21:11 - Dmitri

Excellent. Thanks so much, mario. 


0:21:12 - Mario

Alright, thank you guys. 


0:21:16 - Dmitri

Appreciate it. Let's wrap up this episode with a demo from 1010 Music. After working on the team behind Native Instruments Tractor DJ, the folks at 1010 Music make sleek modular synths. I was drawn to a collection of colorful little boxes on their table, so let's get a demo of their NanoBox collection. 


0:21:39 - Christine

Hi, I'm Christine from 1010 Music and today we're going to demo some of our products here. So we have our NanoBox products, which are a small compact synthesizer sound sources that are designed to either work on their own or with an external MIDI controller. We also have our blue box mixer and we have our black box, which is a groove box. 


0:21:59 - Dmitri

I have to say these are adorable. The really beautiful color is very small. It looks like you could just pick them up and put them in a bag. 


0:22:05 - Christine

They're about the size of a deck of cards for those of you who can't see them right now. So just to give you a bit of a sense of the scale. And they have four buttons and two knobs on each one. So each of the different colors is a different way of generating sound. So the red one is our fireball, which is a wavetable synthesizer. Yellow is our lemon drop, which is a granular synthesizer. The violet color is a FM synthesizer called Rasmotaz, it's an FM drum machine, and the orange one is called tangerine and that is a sampler. 


0:22:36 - Dmitri

All right, let's hear some stuff. What can we do with it? 


0:22:38 - Christine

All right. So we've got a controller here. We're going to trigger some sounds with the fireball. First, let's see what that sounds like. Next, I can show you the lemon drop, which is a granular synthesizer, and this can sound ethereal or it can sound gritty, depending on what kind of sounds you, which sounds that you're using with it. One more here. So we've got the Rasmotaz, which is a drum machine. 


0:23:44 - Dmitri

Awesome. So who is the NanoBox series targeted towards? 


0:23:48 - Christine

It's targeted towards synth players, so part of the ethos behind it is you probably already have a MIDI controller, but you want to get new sounds out of it and so, depending on which sound you want to play with, if you're an introductory user, you can just have new sounds added to it. If you're more of a sound designer, they're very customizable. You can customize the sound that's coming out of them so you can get deeper into it and play with the synthesis and learn a little more about granular or wave tables and how that works. 


0:24:11 - Dmitri

Perfect. Last question what is 1010 music? What are you guys known for? I know we went over one product, but I know you have other stuff. 


0:24:18 - Christine

So we started off with our BitBox, which is a modular product, and basically we have digital synthesizer products that are sound generating, products that are primarily touch screen focused. 


0:24:31 - Dmitri

Christine, thanks so much. This is fun. 


0:24:33 - Christine

Thank you, have a good day. 


0:24:35 - Dmitri

Thanks for joining me visiting some of the booths at Buchla and Friends. I hope you've enjoyed this episode and remember my last episode from the NAMM show, Delving into Innovations and what Making Music Can Look and Sound Like, was issued last week, so check out that podcast too. Interviews and our new how to Startup series from Music Tech founders and their friends will be back soon. Hope you enjoyed. Check it out All these crazy musical instrument innovators. Thanks for listening to Music Tech Tonics. 


If you like what you hear, please subscribe on your favorite podcast app. We have new episodes for you every week. Did you know we do free monthly online events that you, our lovely podcast listeners, can join? Find out more at MusicTechTonics.com and, while you're there, look for the latest about our annual conference and sign up for our newsletter to get updates. Everything we do explores the seismic shifts that shake up music and technology the way the Earth's tectonic plates cause quakes and make mountains. Connect with Music Tech Tonics on Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn. That's my favorite platform. Connect with me, Dimitri Vietze, if you can spell it. We'll be back again next week, if not sooner.




Music Tectonics at NAMM 2023

Let us know what you think! Tweet @MusicTectonics, find us on LinkedIn, Facebook and Instagram, or connect with podcast host Dmitri Vietze on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook.

The Music Tectonics podcast goes beneath the surface of the music industry to explore how technology is changing the way business gets done. Weekly episodes include interviews with music tech movers & shakers, deep dives into seismic shifts, and more.

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