Interesting article about synths

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Interesting article about synths

Postby Antoine » Sun Jan 09, 2005 4:22 pm


Written by Bob Stanley of Saint Etienne.

January 07, 2005

Man and machine get in the Moog for love
Bob Stanley
Synthesizers changed pop music for ever. T2 pays tribute to the pioneers

Kraftwerk and their keyboards (AP)

::nobreak:: IN THE scheme of things, he is as influential as a Presley, a Pistols or a Beatles. It must be infuriating, then, that nobody pronounces his name correctly. Bob Moog (as in “vogue”) built his first synthesizer module in 1964 and slowly revolutionised what we consider to be music.

Back then any sound that didn’t come out of wood or a piece of string was considered suspect at best, harmful at worst. But Moog had a natural “feel” for what was going on inside a transistor. Hans Fjellestad’s documentary Moog, which opens at the ICA next month, includes a host of keyboard luminaries, from Keith Emerson to Money Mark, queuing up to proclaim Moog’s genius. Personally, I’d like to shake his hand for creating the Moog Wasp, a tiny yellow and black plastic tray that is wonderfully easy to use and makes noises as cheap and fizzy as its name implies.

Moog is, without question, the Godfather of Synth, but in the realms of experimental electronic music there’s been a war on since Rolf Harris first advertised the Stylophone in 1969. Back then Moogs were incredibly expensive, and musicians’ tastes were defined by the synths they could afford. Pioneers such as Joe Meek built their own gear. By the Eighties people were allying themselves with certain keyboards by naming their groups after their favourite machine: 808 State took their stamp from a beatbox; the Prodigy may have been so called because Liam Howlett was a schoolkid from Braintree when he wrote Charly, but more likely it was after the Moog of the same name. Nick Rhodes went the whole hog and changed his name to that of an electric piano.

On the debit side, the synth wars have given us the production values of Band Aid 20. Still, try imagining how pop would have sounded without these ten artistes and their keyboard of choice.

JOE MEEK An electronics wizard from Gloucestershire, Meek had created an “outer space fantasy” back in 1960 called I Hear a New World, which consisted of Saroos (“they have a form of rationing, which is a strain”), Globbots (“happy, cheeky, with blue coloured faces”), Bublights and Globb Waterfalls.

When Earth started to catch up with his florid imagination, Meek composed Telstar for the Tornados, a tribute to the world’s first satellite which became a transatlantic No 1. Apart from the wild extraterrestrial sounds on the intro and outro — possibly a manipulated recording of a flushing lavatory — Telstar’s futuristic atmosphere was down to a primitive synth called an Ondioline. In an era ruled by Cliff and the Shads, the Tornados’ roar briefly felt like music from another planet. Then along came the Beatles. Overnight the Ondioline sounded like a parping ice-cream van.

MAX CROOK Operating in America at the same time as Meek, Crook, from Kalamazoo, Michigan, actually built his own early synth, the Musitron, heard to devastating effect on Del Shannon’s 1961 hit Runaway. “We wrote the music in about 20 minutes at the Hi Lo Club in Battle Creek, Michigan, before the owner told us to knock it off and play something else.

“The Musitron was made of many parts: a Clavioline organ with a Viking 85 reel-to-reel for slap echo, and later I added a Fisher K10 Spacexpander reverb unit. Four exist — my original and three I built for friends. That’s all.”

Crook split with Shannon after a couple more wailing, intense 45s — Hats Off to Larry and So Long Baby — because he couldn’t take life on the road. Under the name Maximilian he recorded Twistin’ Ghost in 1962, pumping the haunted fairground sound of the Musitron to its limits.

CHICORY TIP Though it was soon reduced to a football chant (“Ohhh, Frankie Frankie, Frankiefrankiefrankiefrankie Worthington!”) Son of My Father sounded like nothing on earth in 1972. The first entirely electronic hit, it went to No 1, soon pursued by Hot Butter’s similarly seismic Popcorn. To my seven-year-old ears it seemed that this Moog symphony was an Important Record (I also thought Van Der Valk was an Important TV Programme, a bit like the news). In reality, its Eurocheese flavouring probably set back the cause of electronic music by some years. The Tip were classic brickies in drag, like a less glamorous Sweet, so it comes as no surprise that the brain behind their hits was Giorgio Moroder, who five years later would create the ultimate timeless chunk of electronica, Donna Summer’s I Feel Love.

KRAFTWERK They pulled off the neat trick of inventing the future in the days of Baader Meinhof and Vesta curries.

Kraftwerk’s Kling Klang studio in Düsseldorf was loaded with top-end synths — alongside the Mini Moog and Polymoog were an EMS Vocoder (since heard on one Top Five hit every third year ad infinitum) and an EMS Synthi A. Electronic Music Studios synths were the work of the Englishman Peter Zinovieff, an avant-garde brainbox who hung around with Delia Derbyshire from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.

Early models came in a briefcase with many sockets and no keyboard. Nothing looked more futuristic in 1973 and it took clever types like Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider of Kraftwerk to get any kind of sounds out of them. Sadly EMS went under in 1977 after the lure of the guitar market led them to invent a disastrous hybrid called a Hi-Fli, which looked and sounded all wrong. Down in Truro, EMS is now reborn — no doubt they ha ve got Hütter’s and Schneider’s mobile numbers.

THE BUGGLES The year that synth broke — 1979 — gave us Gary Numan’s Tubeway Army and the Buggles. It seems odd now but Numan was briefly lauded as the new Bowie and certainly ushered in the beloved early Eighties electropop era. The Buggles were derided immediately for wearing silly glasses and singing in silly voices on Video Killed the Radio Star. But the fact that they paraded a Yamaha CS 80 on Top of t he Pops sent nascent Kraftwerkees into fits of rage: it cost about £4,000 even then. 10cc also owned one but, hey, they’d had several years worth of hits and could afford it — bird-faced Trevor Horn’s Buggles had a CS 80 on their debut single, dammit! By the time he’d produced Yes, Dollar and Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Horn probably owned a fleet of them.

RICK WAKEMAN So in love was Wakeman with the Mellotron that he bought the company, Victor Kayam-style, in the late Seventies. Sadly, the Mellotron’s era was ten years before — Sergeant Pepper, Nights in White Satin, et al — and 15 years hence, when the likes of Air brought its plaintive qualities back into fashion.

The Mellotron was an unwieldy machine that operated on a series of tape loops that were frustratingly hard to tune, but Wakeman’s dream-come-true was to create a supersize Mellotron which he cunningly named the Birotron, which made it sound like a cheap plastic version that shatters easily underfoot. Thirty-five Birotrons were built before the company went belly up. Nobody I know has ever heard one, and only six are said to have survived, one of which recently sold for $35,000.

Wakeman, broke after a series of divorces, sadly flogged his own Birotron long ago.

ORCHESTRAL MANOEUVRES IN THE DARK Dedicated Korg boys from the beginning, OMD created the lush synth pastures of Souvenir, Messages and Joan of Arc with the help of Andy McCluskey’s Mum’s Kay’s catalogue: “I bought the Korg Micro Preset out of my dole money — I paid Kay’s £7 a week for 36 weeks. It played the lead melody on Enola Gay and Electricity. The sequenced notes on Messages were made by flicking the octave switch by hand — it took hours.

“After I got a job in the civil service, we bought the Korg MS 20 for about £300. It had a cut-out graph thing you placed over the knobs and patchboard and you followed the numbers for the sound you wanted, which was useful because we could never remember how to get a sound we liked.

“In the mid-Eighties we splurged out and bought a Fairlight CMI for £24,000, more than my Mum and Dad’s semi was worth, and now it’s completely redundant, but the Korgs aren’t. Brian Eno said it doesn’t matter how crap your gear is, because you are probably the only person creating your kind of music with that crap gear.”

JEAN MICHEL JARRE Punk revisionism can be so irritating. For one week in September 1977 the top two places in the NME singles chart were occupied by a pair of gob-free, supersleek French electro-instrumentals: Space’s Magic Fly took pole position, with Jean Michel Jarre’s gloopy Oxygene just behind. Space, with their anonymous astronaut outfits and eerie, fuzzy video faded from view, until their blank imagery became the blueprint for Daft Punk. Jarre, on the other hand, couldn’t have been less anonymous. First, he married Charlotte Rampling, the flash swine. Then he invented the light organ for his elaborate stage show. By waving his hands through beams of light he could trigger sounds on his keyboard. The fact that the results were one-part Vangelis, one-part Richard Clayderman and one-part David Copperfield didn’t stop his records selling by the truckload.

SHEENA EASTON Esther Rantzen must have wept tears, real tears, as her well-scrubbed protegée headed for Minneapolis and Paisley Park studios. Prince wrote the wonderfully dirty Sugar Walls for Easton, who was seen sporting a Moog Liberation in the mid-Eighties. This off-the-shoulder contraption came with a grip where a guitar neck would be, meaning you could pose like Hendrix while making the strange plinky noises heard on the beginning of When Doves Cry. The same device was also popularised by Herbie Hancock on Rockit, but was first seen being played by the aforementioned French group Space. Easton swapped her Liberation for a career in real estate and is now very rich indeed.

PET SHOP BOYS Neil Tennant was a humble pop journalist when he first recorded demos with his buddy Chris Lowe. The pair were armed with just a drum machine and Lowe’s rather unusual Wave 2.2, made by a company called PPG. This alone would have made them sound sufficiently different to the legions of electropop duos of the mid-Eighties — Erasure, Blancmange and co — but they were also blessed with a deadpan wit that Max Beerbohm would have applauded. The sound of their debut album, Please, is heavily reliant on the Wave 2.2 — think of the creamy chord sounds on West End Girls and you know what it sounds like. In 1985 you bought your keyboard and attempted to make a career out of it. The likes of the Scissor Sisters, spoilt by remakes and plug-ins of every conceivable machine, could never sound so naive.


1960s Beatles Strawberry Fields Forever (Mellotron)

1970s Kraftwerk Autobahn (Minimoog)

1980s Depeche Mode People Are People (Yamaha DX7)

1990s Happy Mondays Step On (Korg M1)

2000s Scissor Sisters Comfortably Numb (DX7 plug-in)

Moog opens at the ICA Cinema, SW1 (020-7930 3647), on Feb 18

Copyright 2005 Times Newspapers Ltd.
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Postby apollo » Sun Jan 09, 2005 5:59 pm

Nice article.

Especially the bit about Wakeman's birotron, although the full story is even more repeling: 8)

I myself would never dare to begin such a task. There are just to many pioneers and you will always forget one ...
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