Darwin: Okay. This week, we are talking to somebody who I respect so greatly. His name's Mark Vail. He is an author. He was part of the editorial staff of Keyboard Magazine for years. He is knowledgeable about so many things and he's a person who has actually met history in so many ways. So I'm really excited to be able to have this conversation with Mark Vail. Mark, how are you?
Mark Vail: Great Darwin. Thanks a lot for this opportunity.
Darwin: Well thank you for being part of it. It's a real honor for me. Generally speaking with these podcasts, what I like to do is sort of introduce you to the listeners by having you tell us something about your background. Now I'm particularly interested in this because you have done so many things that I find fascinating. So if you could fill us in a little bit on your background in history and some of the things you've done in the past, as well as what you're working on currently.
Mark: Okay. I grew up in downstate Illinois, took piano lessons as a kid, but unfortunately I didn't keep up on it. Took voice lessons for an extended period of time. So as far as music is concerned, I'm much better trained as a tenor vocalist than as a keyboard player. But, in my later years of high school, I discovered synthesizers and the idea of having an electronic instrument that could make all these different sounds really fascinated me. And I didn't really take anything in college - undergraduate work that was related to music or synthesizers. But later on, I did get a master's degree, from Mills College in Oakland, California, and a master's degree on fine arts and studied with people like Gordon Muma and David Rosenboom, Lou Harrison, who was a fabulous composer, American composer. And I moved from from Illinois.
I ended up for a couple of years in Miami, Florida, which, was when I discovered that Keyboard Magazine existed. And I applied twice to work for Keyboard Magazine while I was still in Florida. It didn't work out, but I remembered the San Francisco Bay area from a trip that my family took in 1963 when I was eight years old. And I just always wanted to live there. And that's where Keyboard Magazine was being published. I was able to move across the country, for a job and move to the Bay area and, met my wife and got married in 1987. She was going through the newspaper and found an ad - Keyboard Magazine was looking for an editor and everything worked out for me. Dominic Milano was the editor in chief at the time. And he hired me in early January of 1988.
And that changed my life. I was there until April of 2001. I'd say in about 1991, Bob Moog, the great pioneer of synthesizers, was writing a column called Vintage Synth. He had written, I don't know, he wrote at least half a dozen different columns for Keyboard Magazine over the years, but he wrote four of these columns called Vintage Synths. And then he told Dominic that he really didn't want to look to the past anymore. Bob wanted to look forward to the future. And I don't know how I was so fortunate, but Dominic gave the column to me. And not only was it fabulous to work at Keyboard Magazine, but that column falling into my lap opened up amazing doors and allowed me to interview people, who were seminal and very important in the electronic music industry. Many of them are not with us anymore.
And, the other fortunate thing is I've been able to write books about instruments that some people might consider obsolete. I don't think anything that can still make sound and still be used to make music is obsolete. But whereas I have friends who will write a book about the latest version of Pro Tools or, or Ableton Live or something like that. By the time the book comes out, there's a new version of the software out. So the book itself is obsolete. So it's been very fortunate for me to be able to write about vintage instruments like Moog synthesizers and Hammond organs and things like that, because the information does not go stale. It stays relevant.
Darwin: Yeah. For the listeners that aren't familiar, Mark has written three books. The first one was, I think your first book was Vintage Synthesizers, right?
Mark: Yes, sir. It was.
Darwin: It was sort of an amazing turning point because those of us who had maintained an interest in analog and older synthesizers were just so happy that it was getting it's historical due, because there was a timeframe where everything old was immediately being tossed out for the excitement of the new - and Mark's Vintage Synthesizers book actually came along and established the idea that these vintage synthesizers were not only, desirable, but actually had qualities that were very unique and weren't necessarily being replaced by a newer technology. You followed that up with a book on the Hammond B3 organ, which - I'll tell you Mark. It was actually a really important book to me. I was involved in the documentation of Native Instruments B4 organ plugin.
I had had some experience with Hammond organs, but the process of putting together that documentation... I just enveloped myself in all-things-Hammond. And your book was literally by my side through that whole process as both an inspiration and a tool for generating ideas about how I could properly and usefully document this plugin: not only in how it works, but how it fit within the sort of historic fabric of the Hammonds history, the Hammonds long and incredible history.
The most recent book is called The Synthesizer and it is probably the most comprehensive compendium of synthesizer information going back from the historical beginnings of synthesis through, the most current software-based synthesizers, as well as how a modular synthesizer works. So, three books that really are Mark Stone marking stones, I think, for our understanding and historical memory of these systems now, what is it? So Bob wanting to move away from that article opened the door for you to interact with them.
Did you have, did you have a particular, love of working with these systems anyway? Or is it something that developed over the process of working on these articles?
Mark: Well, like I say, four years before I started working at Keyboard Magazine, I had great interest in synthesizers and I had - my first synthesizer was a MiniMoog, which was an analog monophonic instrument, which means it can play one note at a time, but what an awesome starting point. I couldn't have picked better. And what happened is, and this kind of ties back to what you were saying about a period when people craved new instruments and tossed out the old ones. The turning point came in 1983 when Yamaha introduced the DX-7 synthesizer. It was one of the first affordable digital synthesizers. And it could make sounds that were very difficult for analog synthesizers to create. And I can't say it damaged, but it just redirected the focus of most people in the music industry who thought that analog was dead - analog sound production, using voltage controlled oscillators and filters and onto look generators, the essence of analog synthesis that they thought it was dead.
And like I say, I was fortunate for Bob Moog to start that column and it came to me. But, during my years at Keyboard, there was this fabulous turnaround, I would say beginning in the early nineties that everybody started realizing that analog was actually pretty cool. And two things that the DX-7 did away with were real time controllers - knobs, and sliders, and, things like that - that synthesists used while creating sounds and also performing did away with those. You had a keyboard that sensed how hard you hit and also how hard you pushed on the notes, the keys after you'd played them. Those would control things. And you had the typical wheels that Moog introduced: one to control the pitch of the notes that you were playing. And then the other one controlling modifiers, like, inducing vibrato, or opening up the filter or things like that. It had those, but no more. Did you have knobs that you could grab and adjust as you were, as you were playing sound? The other thing it introduced was a deep menu system that you had to dig down into define all of these different parameters that affected the sound so that, like I said, people were thrilled by the new sounds that they could make, but the synthesis methods of the DX-7 specifically used linear frequency modulation, which was beyond the typical synthesist's idea of how to make sounds.
Darwin: Right. Now before we move on, I'm actually curious about your opinion on something which is now, in historical context, we look back and we say, "Wow, we lost an awful lot when the DX-7 concept took hold!" And in retrospect it kind of looks like maybe we all went insane for awhile, right? Because we, we dropped mods and we dropped like filter cutoff and all this stuff, but clearly at the time - and you know, I started off as a guitarist and a recording engineer and came to keyboards as a compositional tool. And so, for me, my recollection is mostly about the effect that MIDI had at the time. But clearly there were things that were significant about the DX-7 that made it really desirable. Now, I think some of it might've been stylistic because you couldn't do a Lionel Richie ballad without a jangly DX-7 in the background. Right?
I mean, to what extent do you think that some of the things there were important things that the DX-7 introduced, like significant polyphony and an interaction with the new kid on the block of MIDI?
Mark: One of the things that was an example of how popular it was is that one of the factory patches sounded like a Fender Rhodes electro-acoustic piano. And it got to the point where that sound was used on so many records that when people actually did hear a Fender Rhodes, they thought something's was wrong with that.
"That doesn't sound right!" But the introduction of MIDI really expanded, the production of electronic music in ways that it had never done before, because many manufacturers, including, Tom Oberheim and Sequential Circuits and Moog Music and ARP, Alan R. Perlman's company, they were trying to develop ways to control what the sound was doing. But it wasn't until Dave Smith began trying to introduce a general purpose system that with, with Ikaharo Kakehashi at Roland, they developed MIDI and it took some time for other manufacturers to get on board, but enough of them did and convince those that, that didn't accept MIDI at first to come on board. MIDI, standing for Musical Instrument Digital Interface. And what that allows you to do is connect more than one device like synthesizers and play all of them from the same keyboard, or to record what you play into a computer where you can edit it and play it back. So, the introduction of MIDI in 1983 just expanded the capabilities of electronic music instruments in way that in ways that had never been seen before, and it was actually, economical enough that manufacturers could implement that and put it on an instrument that really wasn't any more expensive than an instrument that didn't have MIDI. So it really lit the fire on the electronic music industry and expanded it like it never had before.
Darwin: Right. Well, and again, MIDI was what really drew me into using keyboards because then that allowed me to work on compositions without necessarily having to get the band together. It was a pretty tremendous game changer for me - and I think for a lot of people. And so even though I wasn't primarily keyboardist, you know, particularly through the mitigation of computer-based [options] that really opened up some interesting doors, but it also meant that MIDI ended up being, at least initially for me, and for a lot of people MIDI ended up being kind of the fence: where if something had MIDI, I could consider it for my studio, if it didn't, it really wasn't going to be a player. And that was where for me, and I think maybe a lot of people, that's why some of the older instruments got kind of put away or sold off for scrap. Would you say that's true?
Mark: Yes, I would. And it's funny. Well, we're still working with version one of MIDI, which came out in 1983, now it's 2014. It's, it's over 30 years old and people keep saying, "When are we going to see a version two of MIDI?" The MIDI Manufacturer's Association, a nonprofit organization that keeps anybody who wants to use MIDI in line and not doing things with it they should not do, right? There have still been developments that are important. One thing that may have helped, in the 1990s, analog synthesis started to return to popularity. And also you mentioned earlier modular synthesizers, Bob Moog's and Don Buchla's first synthesizers were modular systems where you had to buy the individual parts, had to buy an oscillator. You had to buy a filter. Although Don Buchla didn't call them those things that the people were familiar with Moog technology, he, Don Buchla, kind of used his own terminology, but you would buy these individual parts and put them in a box and then you'd have to use patch cables to connect them before you could make any sound or make anything happen.
That technology, what was also severely beat down by the popularity of digital synthesizers, like the DX-7, but they came back strong. I give a lot of credit to Dieter Doepfer in Germany, for bringing back modular synthesizers. He took specifications that were used in German industries, like, electronics that go into trains or ships or things like that. They had these specifications that Dieter borrowed to make a new modular format called Eurorack. And there are numerous different formats of modular synthesizers, but Eurorack is by far the most popular. And I think some of the neatest ideas are being implemented in Eurorack modular synth modules. But like you were saying, if something didn't have MIDI, then people might not be interested in using it, but there have been developments, where people are creating devices that can convert MIDI data to control analog modules and vice versa, take the output of analog modules and convert that into MIDI.
Mark: And they come in, hardware devices and also software, which I know you're very familiar with yourself with your work that you do Darwin, but, yeah, MIDI is everywhere. I have to tell you, and I'm sorry to veer off the road. I hope we can get on track, but I spent actually more than seven years working on The Synthesizer Book. And I had to put a number of projects aside, including actually playing with synthesizers. And I have to admit, I have too many toys. I have more musical instruments than most people could imagine. And I haven't spent enough time with them - as much time as I should. But this week I have arranged for my first book signing event for The Synthesizer. And as I have done in the past, when I've had a book signing, there has to be live music involved.
So, I live in Sacramento, California. We're about Oh, 35, 40 miles away from a town called Davis, which is also in the Central Valley in California. And there is a University of California branch there. And they have this fabulous bookstore that I found out about called The Avid Reader. And on Friday night, April 11th, right now we're talking about starting at 7:30, we're going to have a book signing there. My good friend, David Battino, who's also a synthesist and a journalist and also a fabulous jazz guitarist from San Francisco named Michael Grow. We're going to play some music at this book signing. And since I've neglected my instruments for so much over the past few years, today, I spent a lot of time getting things working. And some, some of the devices that I'm planning on using have MIDI and some of them don't, MIDI is very useful. If you want to synchronize, for example, a drum machine with a sequenced pattern and a synthesizer, but I made a joke one time to David Battino, that, you know, sync is overrated. Sometimes it's fun. Sometimes it's fun if things aren't perfectly in sync.
Darwin: I would agree because lot of times when you do it that way you end up with the happy accident that just is charming and that you could have never considered doing, you know, intellectually. That's great. Okay. So this is again, it's April 11th. And that's that? That's in Davis, California, and the name of the bookstore again,
Mark: The Avid Reader.
Darwin: Those of you out there who are within driving range, and I know that there's a lot of people out there in the Bay area, particularly, that could get out there for easily. That, that sounds like an awesome thing. David Battino is such a sweetheart too. So it's cool that you're working with him on this as well.
Mark: We, David and I, we get together not as often as we would like, he has two kids, I have two dogs and, you know, we we'd love to get together at least once a month, but we have done these things. We have jam sessions, sometimes we'll invite somebody else, like a saxophone player or something like that. Cause I love to mix acoustics with electronics. But he challenged me several years ago. First it was a pocket jam. What you could carry in your pocket was the only thing you could do. And he had his, well, first of all, we are both fans of the Korg Kaoscillator, a little instrument. That's just, I think it's a synthesizer, even though you can't go in and you can't change all the parameters, but it's a real-time instrument that you can start drum patterns and you can adjust how they play and you can record inside it how your motions on this two dimensional touchpad and control it and record it in there.
But when you shut it off, you lose all your, your stuff. So it's just kind of a real-time thing. And Korg has taken that idea through a number of devices, Kaos pads, Kaoscillator. So David and I both have those, but this was kind of when iOS in things like the Apple iPhone and the iPod touch were getting powerful enough to do some pretty sophisticated synthesis. And this was 2010. So we've had four years of further developments. And, I didn't have an iPod touch. I had a Kaoscillator, but I wanted to use something different. I'm a big fan of Dave Smith Instruments, Dave Smith, like I said earlier, he was the kingpin behind the development of MIDI, but his first company was Sequential Circuits, which introduced the first polyphonic programmable synthesizer was called a Prophet Five.
And he came out with that in 1977. I think I've got that date right. And Sequential Circuits introduced many fabulous electronic instruments over the years, but I believe they closed in 1989, somewhere around there. And Dave Smith was involved with other companies. But he finally started the new company under his own name. And he's come out with all these fabulous instruments again. But he introduced this little monosynth module called the Mofo. And the other stipulation that David had was it has to be battery powered. We're gonna meet in a coffee shop. And w you know, they would not care for you to come in and plug in something and use their AC. So it had to be pocket sized and battery powered. Well, the Mofo is not really pocket size. So I had to break that rule a little bit, but I did have to do some work to use battery power, to power that thing. And so it actually took a combination of AA battery units. I think 10 is the biggest thing that you can buy at an electronic store to power something with, well, I had to use 12 batteries to get enough voltage. And so I had to wire the same together, but I actually made it work.
Darwin: So did you have to like buy special cargo pants in order to fit all of those things in pockets?
Mark: Well, I, like I said, I already broke the law, but we had this fabulous jam session on a tabletop, in a coffee shop, and we recorded it with little zoom recorders. And you know, what I've learned over the years is that limitations can be so beneficial. You can have so many instruments to play with that. Your mind doesn't focus as well as it does. If you're limited to one or two, possibly three instruments at a time, and you, you concentrate on what you're doing, the results are better than they are for you if you have 10 different instruments that you're trying to juggle at the same time,
Darwin: I think you're so right with that. I think another corollary to that is by, giving up control, sometimes that gives you the freedom to be creative, but if you have too much control, then you focus on controlling instead of creation. I certainly feel that way about trying to do a lot of synthesis parameter changes within a DAW software package; once I like dive into this hyper control mode, all of a sudden I feel like I almost can feel the creativity slipping away as I'm turning from artists to engineer, you know?
Mark: Yes, yes. I understand that. Yeah.
Darwin: And so the, one of the cool things about these small devices is you kind of limited in the number of controls you have, but it's frees you to say, "Well, I'm going to make the most use out of my hand." And oftentimes fun stuff comes out of that.
Mark: This is veering again, and I apologize. That's what we do here. I think if it applies, the Minimoog was not programmable. The Prophet Five, Dave Smith's Sequential Circuits, Prophet Five was the first fully programmable polyphonic synthesizer. And that led to many other programmable synthesizers, like the DX-7, where you could have all these sounds in the instrument and push a button and almost immediately have a new sound. Well, over the last few years, I've found it very cool that a number of manufacturers have gone back to making non-programmable synthesizers. And I had a conversation about this with, with some people, and there are a number of benefits to something that's not programmable. For one thing, it forces you to work with the controls that you do have, so that the sound you make doesn't get stale, that there's movement, any kind of sound and music that is so repetitive and never changes that that tends to ruin music.
At least for me, is things need to change a part needs to get a little bit louder than these, to have tangible changes. It needs to move in in interesting ways. And so with a non-programmable synthesizer, you have to work with what the filter is doing or what the oscillator timbre is doing. And it forces you to learn the instrument that someone with a programmable instrument may never get beyond just merely selecting new presets going from preset to preset. So, another thing, in fact, it was, it was Dave Smith. I keep bringing his name up and he's a worthy guy.
Darwin: Are you talking about the history of the electronic music world? I mean, he seemed to have his fingers in all of that.
Mark: Yes. Well, his take on it was that a lot of purported professional synthesists do not actually understand the flow of electronic signals that create the sound that synthesizers do. They don't understand how to route things, which you learn to do if you work with a non-programmable instrument synthesizer. So if you have either a modular synthesizer or an instrument that requires you to use patchcords in order to create sound and control things. So there's a great benefit to having these instruments because you learn so much more about how synthesis works,
Darwin: Right. And I mean, there's, there's also a kind of a side benefit. If a manufacturer says that they're going to make a non-programmable synthesizer, it also almost requires that there's like no menu system, no increment and decrement buttons, you know, all of this, there really needs to be a rich control surface in order for that to even make sense.
Mark: Yes. I assembled a panel at the NAMM show in January and Dave Smith was on the panel, as was Jerry Basserman. Jerry has a reputation for the demonstrations that he used to do at NAMM, specifically for EMU systems. He put on all these great shows. And so he now works for Propellerheads software. Propellerheads makes the program Reason, which I won't go into that right now. But anyway, Jerry was on this panel and he was talking about another benefit of a non-programmable instrument. For a performance, he would set the instrument up and just focus on a handful of controllers that he would use to make changes during a song or during a performance. So that the instrument didn't, the sound did not change significantly, but more subtly, but yet it was very effective for the music that he was playing.
Darwin: Right. Well, it sort of makes sense because if you think about it from an acoustic instrument standpoint, you know, a saxophone is doesn't pick up an alto sax and expect it to sound like a saxophone for this song and a lead guitar for the next song, and a symphony for the song after that, right? That nobody would expect an alto sax to pull that off. So one of the things I tend to sort of harp on and on and on about is virtuosity with an instrument. And I think sometimes these highly programmable instruments, give you variety and an interesting pallet of available sounds, but don't necessarily draw you into any sort of virtuosity with it as an instrument. It ends up sort of like a novelty toy for a sound rather than an instrument that you learn in depth.
Mark: Very true, very true. I am the first to admit that I'm not a very good keyboard player. I do take advantage of capabilities that many synthesizers give you, like sequencers and arpeggiator that you can hold a chord and it can play this fancy string of notes that I couldn't play myself. But your eyes really open as do your ears. When you do hear the people who do become virtuosos with their instruments, it does make a big difference.
Darwin: Given your experience, and especially working with Keyboard where you got to meet an incredible number of people, one of the things I would say is that there is actually, you can be a virtuoso with a synthesizer without necessarily being a virtual keyboard player, that when you look at what fantastic sound designers can do, I mean, I was always in awe of like Eric Persig's solid design work. I mean, the guy made synthesizers speak in such a wonderful way. And I always felt like, you know, I wouldn't care if he could only play chopsticks, I would still classify him as a virtuoso, because he mastered sound design in such a wonderful way.
Mark: Yes. Eric was also on my panel. Just give him a shout out because Eric was responsible. Well, he, he didn't do it all himself, but, one of the best selling synthesizers of all time was the Roland D-50 and Eric played a huge part in voicing that instrument, sound design, creating these sounds. And during the process of voicing the D-50, one of the Japanese engineers, as a little joke put code into the little microprocessor that would scan through different waveforms as you were playing a sound. And he did it as a joke, but when Eric heard this, he convinced the guy, no - you have to leave this in. This is a great capability. And there was a patch and in the Roland D-50 called Digital Native Dance that all anybody had to demonstrate in the music store was to call up that patch and just hit a low note. And people's jaws would just drop on the floor because here's this instrument making this unique pattern of timbres that just astounded people. And Eric said they sold, I don't know. I know they sold over a hundred thousand of the Roland D-50, like 160,000, which is huge in the synthesizer market. And that played a great part in it. Eric also has a company called Spectrasonics, which is one of the most respected makers of software synthesizers these days.
Darwin: He does good work...
Mark: He does, he's a fantastic musician and a fantastic person too, yeah.
Darwin: Given that you have experienced a lot of things that most people will never experience, in The Synthesizer book, you talk about having had the opportunity to see some of these super rare instruments either because you happened to... I think, was it the ADS synth that you saw at a vintage computers show or something?
Mark: Con Brio, yeah. The, the ads, Tim Ryan and two other guys made this instrument. There's, there's so much history to it, but this thing, they were college kids and they assembled this instrument that could do today what many DAW - digital audio workstations - could not do? And it used these hand wired circuit boards. And I believe what were the old floppy disks when the disks were really floppy?
Darwin: No, it was the big eight inch disks. Yeah.
Mark: Yeah. And that instrument, number one, it could load things from disk, faster than Macintoshes could before we got to solid state drives. And there were all these controls on the front panel of the Con Breo, and it looks very complicated and it had, I don't know, like five or six different modes, but when you went into a certain mode, only the controls that work for that particular mode would be lit up. The others would go dark and those, ideas on their own are incredible enough. But the sound of this instrument is just phenomenal, even today. So yeah, Tim Ryan and the other guys, Tim Ryan started the company M-Audio, which before that was called MIDIman.
They showed the Con Breo to Mr. Kakehashi, the founder of Roland. Mr. K as he's affectionately known, recommended that they take many of the ideas that were in the Con Brio and pair them down to make individual devices, which is what MIDIman and M-Audio have been good at. But that instrument on its own was, I think there's one working model. And some of the sounds from that appeared in Star Trek, The Motion Picture; some of that audio is in that movie was generated by the Con Brio.
Darwin: Well, and it's kind of interesting to think, because, you know, realistically with the modern movement towards controllers, as an important part of everyone's studio, M-Audio was really kind of at the forefront of that. And to think that all of that might've come out of a discussion Mr. K had with the Con Brio folks is really a fascinating and completely unknown piece of history.
Mark: Yes. And you were talking earlier about being a guitar player, and we're talking now about controllers. The guitar is one of the few instruments that does not translate well into MIDI. I'm sure you've tried numerous...
Darwin: There's a trail of tears behind that man.
Mark: There have been - you were talking about saxophone. There have been very successful wind instruments. Nile Steiner made an electronic valve instrument and an electronic wind instrument, Yamaha made one that was actually based on Steiner's stuff. Those have been successful. There've been drums, translated into electronic controllers, but guitar and also voice do not translate well. When I was a Keyboard Magazine, one month, I reviewed a couple of pitch-to-MIDI converters, that had microphones that you would sing into and they would confer that init MIDI data, right? And one of them allowed you to plug in the microphone to amplify your voice. And I have to tell you Darwin that the way you need to sing to get accurate tracking for MIDI data is not something that your ears want to hear because you have to sing at perfect pitch. And, you know, vibrato will make it go all over the place. And you don't want to hear that.
A couple of months after that review appeared in Keyboard Magazine, I was contacted by a guy who claimed that he had created, a pitch to MIDI converter that could identify individual notes in a chord. This was 1989. I don't even know if they had that kind of technology at Stanford. But he made this claim and I said, "Well, that's very interesting. I'd love to check that out." So this box arrived and I got this device out. It was a little tabletop unit and it came with a plastic microphone.
And so I plugged it into a MIDI synthesizer and plugged in the microphone and started to sing. And what I discovered was the guy had made a fabulous stochastic note generator because it didn't matter what pitch I sang into the microphone. All of these notes would come in. So I just put the thing back in a box and wrote the guy a letter saying, you know, "Well, nice try, but you do not want us to write about this."
Darwin: Great. He made the magic melody maker. It's just, that wasn't what he was shooting for.
Mark: No, I don't think so. I should have sent it to Stanford. They might've been able to do something.
Darwin: Yeah, maybe. So, in your estimation, when people talk about the Mount Rushmore of electronic music, you know, we have Dr. Moog, we would talk about Don Buchla, you know, I would suggest that there are other people that right now are maybe sort of an undervalued. Who's the guy behind New England Digital - the whole Synclavier system. I can't remember his name right now, but, you know, the Synclavier really changed people's, understanding and imagination of what electronic music could do...
Mark: John Appleton.
Darwin: Yeah. That's it. And, and then certainly the people who were involved in the creation of the early, computer-based sequencers, and especially when sequencers also included digital audio. So for me, that digital audio inclusion was what allowed me to go back to analog because I could still do this constructed recording, but I could bring it in, you know, I could record the audio digitally and then build up other stuff around it. So that was my transition tool. And then of course, now at this point I don't actually have a synthesizer that speaks MIDI. I have all analog only systems. But anyway, who are some other people that you think, you know, may have been overlooked in the discussion about, you know, like hall of fame status?
Mark: I'm going to mention several people. One was a guy named Bill Mauchly. He used to work for Ensoniq. Bill Mauchly designed some well, they weren't really modifications, but they were software configurations for Ensoniq products, like their samplers, their EPS 16 plus and ASR-10 samplers, and Bill created something called the Voder, not the vocoder, but the voder, voice operation demonstrator that was being developed or was developed by a Bell Labs back in the thirties. And the original hardware voder was a device that operators learned how to use their hands, their fingers and their feet. And they could make the thing talk and not only talk, but expressively talk.
Articulate words with emotion. There's a YouTube, if you look for Voder, there are some from the 1939 New York's World's Fair. I think this one was on there where a guy's telling this operator lady to make the thing talk and she makes the thing talk. Well, Bill Mauchly, had his company was Waveboy Industries, and you can still find the software. You can still find these Ensoniq samplers, not the Mirage, not the original EPS, but the 16 plus, and the SRS, it's almost worth getting this software. I think, who's the crazy Chicken guy... Chicken Systems. He still sells this Waveboy Voder, or that you can load samples into the thing. And then the lower octave and a half of the keyboard change the filter to give articulation, like vowel sounds and consonants and things like that, that you can, it will take a lot of practice, but you can, if you have have a sample in there, you can kind of try to make it sound like speaking.
Mark: So there's, there's one guy for you. Another one is a guy named Armand Pascetta. Armand actually developed one of the first keyboards that was capable of polyphony - of playing more than one note at a time with a synthesizer. He developed his keyboard about the same time that the EMU guys created their system that went into the Prophet Five and that Tom Oberheim used for his polyphonic synthesizers, but Armand used military surplus parts and created these polyphonic keyboards that responded more quickly than the other polyphonic keyboards. Two people that I know have used Armand's keyboard: One was Don Lewis, who lived in the Bay area for a long time. He was in an LA before then, but, Don Lewis was familiar with Armand Pascetta work and he used one, at least one of Armand's keyboards on some albums.
He demonstrated and recorded for Quincy Jones and some other big people. It's also in the Tonto synthesizer, the big, huge monster synthesizer that Malcolm Cecil put together, and Stevie wonder used on some of his albums. So, Armand Pascetta, he still out there he's, still trying to develop and make these things for sale. But he just doesn't, he's not interested in selling his ideas to a corporation or anything like that. He wants to do it himself. And, you know, there's so much power in as far as synthesizers and everything are concerned in computers, but kind of the obstruction now are the controllers to do it expressively and with as much capabilities as you'd like to have. I mentioned earlier M-audio, Novation is another company that's made keyboard controllers. I think one of the difficulties is that you have so many parameters on synthesizers, especially in a computer that you have all these banks of knobs or whatever.
And depending on the patch that you're playing, what the knobs do may change, you know, a knob for one patch might control the filter cutoff and for another patch that might control the attack time on the filter envelope. So that's, I think that manufacturers are still struggling to address that capability. I love some of the synthesizers, the soft synths that you can get for your Macintosh or iOS, things like the iPad and the iPod Touch, but I still prefer hardware. I still prefer things with dedicated knobs that, you know, this knob does the filter resonance, and isn't going to change. But it is a great time to be a synthesist because everyone has so many different choices. You can go modular, you can build your own.
Darwin: Right. And the fact is that even the combination of soft synth, hardware, pre-built synths, modulars, the many ways you can build hybrid systems is pretty spectacular and really allows you to individualize your, your studio to kind of work the way your brain, which is I think pretty fantastic. Yeah.
Mark: Yes. And the brick wall I'm running into now is the fact that I have too many choices.
Darwin: Well, yeah. I wanted to ask you about this because, if I'm not mistaken, you actually shared a photo of me with me of your modular system, which is...
Mark: Very small, very small. I have, I have a single panel of Serge and then a single, well, actually a little bit more than a single panel of Euro rack stuff which has a little bit of Doepfer. I have some Make Noise. I have a fantastic sequencer from George Mattson and his brother, Scott.
Darwin: Yeah, the guy who does Division Six.
Mark: Division Six. Yeah. Scott Rise, I believe. I have a Plague Bearer filter. I have a Pittsburgh VCO, very small. There's so much here that, well, I also have a Doepfer matrix mixer that I got because I had been reading about David Tutor and listening to some of his music and David Tutor enjoyed making things feedback in a different way than Jimi Hendrix. But, so, you know, I'm keeping this small, I have too many other instruments. Tell ya a good friend of mine, Drew Newman. There's a lot of Drew in the books.
Darwin: Yeah. I noticed that. And I mean, every time that Drew Newman, a picture of his studio would show up, I was like, I was like, damn you Mark Vale!
Because I have worked so hard. I mean, one of the things I like about your system is that it, it seems like this very personalized musical weapon. I hate to say it that way, but the reason I think of it that way is because of these stories you read like of the, you know, the turn from the 19th to 20th century, where people, a lot of times they would really customize their pistols, right. To make it exactly fit their hand and the coloring would fit their wardrobe, and it would have like their personality written all over their gun. Right? Well, now it's socially unacceptable to have a personalized gun. So we've all moved to synthesizers!
Mark: Not enough of us.
Darwin: Maybe you're right. But nevertheless, you know, it really reminded me of that, I saw your personality displayed in that. And you know, I have like a Tiptop Station 252. So it's like three little ranks and I've been obsessive about, "Ooh, this one doesn't really fit my personality. This one, the light is too bright. And so I'll never use it, so I can't have it then..." you know, and it becomes that kind of momento of me, you know, established in a sense. And so it's funny, I feel like your system and my system, and a lot of people's systems are moving into that. It's gone away from being these enormous systems into being these little personalized systems. And when I think, yep, that's perfection, then you show me these pictures of Drew Newman's studio.
Mark: Well, the whole point about showing those, those pictures of drew Newman's incredible collection of synthesizers and other instruments is that he is so productive with what he has. If I had that many choices, I'd get brain lock, but Drew did the music for Aeon Flux. And he's done music for many animation movies. And I was fascinated because not only does he have modular synthesizers, he has multiple formats. He has the 5U, which is what started with Moog modular. He has Serge. Moncan A, he has Eurorack and it just fascinates me how productive he is, even with having all of those things. So I'm sorry.
Darwin: One of the things at one point I had really quite a room full of stuff. I had a lot of stuff. And from, for me, the frustration of that was because a lot of it was older equipment. It meant that at any given time, 20% of it was broken and I really didn't have the electronic chops to fix it myself, nor did I have the free cash to have someone fix it for me. So there was this built-in disappointment of having all this equipment.
Mark: And, and then there's the problem of, of deciding, you know, maybe I don't need that anymore. It still works, but maybe I don't need it anymore. So I'll sell it on eBay. And then two weeks later you just regret it.
Darwin: Yeah. And especially with some of some of this stuff, if you sell it, you may never be able to buy it again. So my question to you and we've, I have used up so much of your time already. I apologize for that.
Mark: Oh, I love this. This could go all night.
Darwin: But I have one question that I literally have wanted to ask since second one of this discussion, which is surely there is a Holy Grail synth for you. You have gotten to see touch and interact with so many things over the years. Is there something that for you is a Holy Grail that you don't think you can get?
Mark: I'd have to go back to that Con Breo, really. Because, the ideas that they came up with that just floor me was the first one was the S-100 and they took it apart and made a few ADS-200's. You know, I've, I've played instruments that I just absolutely love - the MiniMoog I love, although I did have to sell it to buy my little Serge. When I saw the first ad for the Nord Lead, from this Swedish company Clavia, I thought, Oh, look, that that's funny, it's red, or that it looks plastic. What a joke, and then...
Darwin: Would a knob or a wooden stick on it?
Mark: Yeah. I looked at that and I said, well, how silly is that? Well, it came to me at Keyboard for review and I got it out of the box. And I immediately fell in love with the thing, because it was like a polyphonic MiniMOog. And I still have it it's pictured on the back cover of the Synthesizer book. I still love playing that instrument. It's, it's a digital sound production, but it does sound very analog. There are limitations, like a lot of people love to plug external audio into a synthesizer and process it with the synthesizers filters and the other components. But the Nord Lead never has had an audio input and the original hardly didn't have any effects, no delay or no reverb or anything like that. So you do have to process it with external devices. So it isn't as convenient as I would like, but I still love my little Nord Lead.
Mark: It's one of the things that I'm still on the fence. I still, you know, I've got to take this rack of modular stuff to the Avid Reader for the book signing. I have this pedal board with a bunch of different things on it and you know, it's a small town, there's not much parking, the store doesn't have their own parking space. And David's going to bring his stuff and ride with me. I asked his son Thomas to take pictures and video of the book signing and the performance. So I'm having a difficult time at this Darwin, but, I'm trying really hard to limit what I take, but there's so much I could take. But then the Nord Lead - and another instrument is the Nord Modular, which I have the original version of that.
Mark: The Nord Modular is a fantastic concept and that you have a hardware piece that connects to a computer. And on the computer you have modules, you have virtual modules, like you would get with a modular synthesizer and you can put those on your computer screen and you connect the cables and everything. And then you send that across the MIDI line, into the hardware unit. And once it's in the hardware unit, you can unplug the computer and you can just take the Nord Modular with you. The keyboard doesn't have after touch it. The original doesn't even have the pitch stick or the little mod wheel, which infuriated me when they introduced it. But it has like a dozen knobs on it. And that gets back to the other thing, where with one patch a knob might do one thing. And then another patch it would do something completely different. Maybe it's the Arturia Origin. That's kind of like the Nord Modular in that you have modules, but what are, did, Arturia makes all these great soft synths that are based on vintage instruments, but they have with the Origin, you can have a Yamaha filter and cannot combine that with a Moog oscillator.
Darwin: Oh, they cross those boundaries in the Origin. I didn't realize that. Oh, that's interesting.
Mark: Yes. So, yeah, the perfect synthesizer?
Darwin: Yeah. Well, I'll tell you what mine is and you actually have a great big picture of it in your book, which is that enormous Waldorf Wave. I have always lusted over that. And even because I can articulate why I lust over it, other than it looks like it, it looks like what I would've considered the coolest looking instrument when I was 12. Right. And I have to admit, I probably still feel like that's the coolest looking instrument.
Mark: Now there's been a synthesizer, showed up at NAMM the last few years, and I'm sure it's at the Frankfort Musicmesse. I have never played it. I have just, I can't touch it because if I touch it... It's a polyphonic analog synthesizer. I don't know if it's programmable, but it's about the size of the Waldorf Wave. And it has this incredible, front panel covered with knobs, like a big old Moog and - I can't say the name of it now.
Darwin: Yeah. I'll try to remember it as well. The poor guy, it would just hit us both on the head too, because he's so much wants everybody to just fall in love with it. Yes. But it's not only is it as big as a Buick - I think it costs about as much as a Buick too.
Mark: Yes, definitely. Definitely. So we have to make do with what we can.
Darwin: Yeah. Clearly. Well, it's interesting that, that you have such a love for the Nord Lead. I had one of the Nord Lead 1's and that was one of the things when the Nord Lead 2 came out, I'm like, "Ooh, it's better." And I sold my Nord Lead 1 to get the 2. And I was like, "Hmm, doesn't quite feel right." And then an Nord Lead 3 came out. I'm like, "I'm going with this because three is better than 2." And then it was like, "Oh, this really isn't working for me. I want to Nord Lead one." I can't find one. I can't find one anywhere.
Mark: Now. Here's what I understand. Clavia and Propellerhead software are both in Stockholm, Sweden. I believe that the guy who designed the sound engine for the original Nord Lead and the first version of the Nord Modular, I believe he went to Propellerhead. So they lost the guy who was responsible for the tones of those instruments at Clavia.
Darwin: Yeah. And it was, I mean, the tone was definitely different, but also it was silly stuff. Like the way that wooden pitch stick felt like the tension on it changed. And I'm like, "You're screwed with my thing, man."
Mark: And there's another difference is it's purely cosmetic. The original Nord Lead has beveled corners on the upper right. And the lower left and... and I'm sure that costs more.
Darwin: Yeah. I was going to say, you know, that somebody said "We can save $50 in manufacturing if we don't make those beveled corners."
Mark: Yeah. Now, like I mentioned earlier, the Korg Kaossilator, then the first Kaoss Pad is a processor that I loved to play the Nord Lead through. And there's that space to the right of the control panel on the Nord Lead where you can put something right. But that dog-gone beveled edge: the Kaoss pad sits there nicely, you know, it wants to go over the edge.
Darwin: Right. Although, you know, what I realized now is that that's the perfect surface for like one of those Korgs Volcas something like that that would actually kind of fit in there nicely. Although it does mean an effects processor. All right. So Mark, thank you so much for your time listeners, please go out and check out, Mark's news book, The Synthesizer - it's mind numbing in his depth. I mean, and one of the things that's really interesting is he takes a very unique approach to how he groups, the history of things. It's a fascinating read, no matter how much you think you know about synthesizers and synth history, you're going to learn tons of new stuff. So get out there, those of you who have an opportunity head out to the Avid Reader, on April 11th, that's in Davis, California. I, I may try and weasel away out there, my own self I'm sure I can make a call on there having to be a meeting somewhere in that vicinity with somebody - I'll have to, you've given me enough time to generate need.
Darwin: So, thank you so much for your time. It was fantastic talking to you,
Mark: Darwin. I so enjoyed it and I hope we can do it again sometime.
Darwin: I'm sure we'll do it. I have about a million more questions to ask you too. So, thank you very much and have a great evening.
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