Monday, January 6, 2014

Classic 1970s Modular Synthesizer "Demo"...

I recently came across this brilliantly dated Modular Synth demo: 

This is no other than the infamous EMS VCS3 "Putney" - a self contained analog sound studio. The Putney and it's sister instrument the SynthiA (a portable suitcase version) have been famously used by space rock pioneers like Hawkwind and Pink Floyd, new wave and underground heros like Pere Ubu, electronic whiz kids like Richard James (Aphex Twin) and more. Brian Eno's insistence on using multiple units in the early Roxy Music days brought about both brilliance and strife as everything (drums, guitars, vocals) were processed like crazy - quite an original application for a pop band back then. I used to use one live in the freak Philadelphia  hard rock band Muscle Factory in the early 2000s until I wised up about bringing delicate vintage instruments into sweaty rock clubs.

God help us the Putney even played the title role in the Music For Isolation Tanks album, "The Feedback Machine". Skip around the tracks to feel the Noize:

What is remarkable about the Putney and this video demo isn't that it was an analog or a fickle beast (most modulars were in the 1970s) but that over the years it's been known more and more as solely a  "noise" machine. The drifting oscillators and raspy tone of it's filter and ring modulation sections as well as the unconventional "trapezoid" envelope generator and joystick - Hello! - all added up to experimentation and buzzing, whirring, exploding sounds rather than Moogish thick bass lines or soaring leads. Hell, even the "preset" system (connector cards with soldered resistors and components than snapped into the "presto-patch" section) had a card labeled simply "Battle".

Who can resist dancing to "Battle"!

But that is today long after the industrial music revolution and acceptable use of distortion on guitars. Back in the early 1970s Modular synths were sold to professional sound designers and musicians who made their living scoring industrials, commercials, and sound tracks and they needed them to mimic acoustic instruments and pretty sounds. This video, a product demo by sound designer and composer Tony Luisi, is a prefect example of how these now accepted infernal freak machines were marketed and it gives us a rare glimpse not only into the history of electronic music and sound, but shows that there are more ways to make the tone  of skinning a cat.

I highly recommend curious listeners pay close attention to his description starting at around 6 minutes in the video of a car chase, shootout with police, and subsequent crash. Yes, a VCS3  can do strings and horns but really you should buy it for the explosions!

Battle on!