A Pioneer Synth Designer visits the Mushrooms!
Maker of extraordinary electronic instruments Don Buchla, whom I had the good fortune to meet at the last NAMM show, happened to be traveling in my corner of the world. What a thrill that he was able to come by my Mushrooms Studio with some of his creations and the incomparable 200e!
Considering that I'm a newbie to modulars, I had the luckiest imaginable tour of the 200e, being as how it was guided by the designer himself. I felt as though I processed what he was telling me reasonably well, thanks to the reading up I did ahead of time. Sitting in front of it, I love the the size and dimensions of the instrument. The look and feel make you want to tweak endlessly. The blue displays are gorgeous, and the whole thing manages to look joyful, capricious, and stately at the same time. I had some dumb questions, and thought it was cool that he was patient about answering them. The pace at which we moved forward was comfortable for me, and I was very glad for that!
While Don was here I had two good blocks of time to play with the 200e by myself. I found that the manual is not a tips 'n tricks kind of document -- instead it's classy, friendly and complete, and ready to accept revised pages as modules receive updates. I had an attack of bashfulness about working with Don around that makes me laugh to think about it now! But he encouraged me to go ahead and wade in. Pretty quickly I started having ideas about what I wanted to do before I knew how to do 'em. So I'd say out loud what I thought I'd like to do next, and he'd show me what the next connection should be. There never wasn't a way to do what I was thinking about (of course not, we're talking Buchla here), though he pointed out better ways to get there in a couple of situations. When I stopped being afraid of my lack of experience, a real rush set in. Then of course our time ran out -- argghh. I can now imagine the fun of purposefully designing patches with unlimited time to play!
As my mushroom lamps flickered and blinky-lights blinked, Don's associate Yasi took an interest in several of my MIDI controllers, and hooked them up to various synths while he tried them out. While he noodled, Don and I had a lively discussion of the merits and shortcomings of some of my gear. I played the devil's advocate occasionally, defending things from a marketing perspective, and enjoyed how he warmly expressed convictions that form the unshakeable foundation for his work. If it wasn't for this man's resistance to walking the path of commercial interest, his instruments wouldn't exist as they do. They wouldn't even be conceptualized in recognizable form. Many of us who have gotten into electronic music in the last decade have a certain set of expectations of EMI manufacturers. We expect them to compete among themselves for our business. We expect them to tout the virtues of their products all over magazines and the internet, adopt slogans, start up website forums and mailing lists, show us comparison charts, and vie for the limelight. It takes immense strength of character (in my book) to avoid subscribing to the system. Buchla simply isn't playing that game. If you know you want one of Don's instruments, you'll go to him. End of story.
Don had with him the head of his Thunder II drum controller, and showed me its marvelous sensitivity. An unexpected surprise was that he re-capped for me some of the material he had just presented at a music conference, describing several creations that never were produced or were simply one-offs, notably the Rain and Wind Controllers and the Thunder II. I kept interrupting him to ask questions (a rare and wonderful opportunity, if you're on the asking end!), and he responded with a wealth of anecdotes from the various phases of his career.
Now that I've had some time with it, I'd kill for a 200e, but I can't make any bets on being able to afford one soon. In the meantime it's something delightful to think about, along with the time Don's travels brought him by my studio.
(What's the gloriously knobby background image? It's Buchla and Associates Model 250e Arbitrary Function Generator!)