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Don Buchla-a different approach to sound and life

At almost the exact same time that Bob Moog was starting to make modular synths on the East Coast, Don Buchla was starting to make modular synths on the West Coast at the San Francisco Tape Music Center. 

Buchla was born in Southern California in 1937 and studied physics and music at UC Berkeley graduating with as a physic major in 1959. 

He after graduation in the early 1960s, he worked on engineering projects for the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory (“Rad Lab”), NASA, and the California School for the Blind. As mentioned in other articles, Dave Smith and Brian Vincik first jobs were in the aerospace industry.

His first modular synth was commissioned by Ramon Sender and Morton Subotnick in 1963 with a $500 grant from the Rockefeller Foundation. Although the Moog and the Buchla 100 series Modular Electronic Music System were both modular synths, they were very different.  

In fact, if you going to use one word to describe Don, different would probably be the right one. 

His approach to oscillators was vastly different than Moog’s. He focused on more complex waveforms and methods for generating then then simple sawtooths, sines and triangles. 

In fact, Don did not like to call his products “synthesizers’ because to him that implied that they were trying to synthetically  recreate existing instruments.  Instead true to the experimental background of composers like Subotnick and Rame, Buchla focused on creating new as yet unheard of sounds sounds and new a unique ways of controlling them.

buchla100 photo from 120years

Even the nomenclature used for Buchla’s modular components is unique, yet appropriately descriptive. Rather than an oscillator, filter, amplifier, and sequencer, Buchla’s instruments have a Complex Waveform Generator, a Multiple Arbitrary Function Generator, a Source of Uncertainty, a Quad Dynamics Manager, and so on.

by Buchla US Website

Buchla favored Touchplates over traditional keys

From the very beginning, Don Buchla had a design philosophy that made his products unique. He used capacitive Touchplates instead of standard keys.  The advantage of Touchplates is that they provide a second dimension of expression. You can slide your finger up and down on the keys and generate control signals. 

Don Buchla was a master at designing control interfaces. Every control based module was designed in a way that would challenge the musician to think outside the box. While he was not against standard keyboards, as most people theorize, he felt that the keyboard commanded the performer to think within a certain set of preconceived motions. The touchplate that we all know and love was originally based on an invention of Don’s from his days as a freelance engineer working for NASA; they were installed as fuel sensors in rocket fuel tanks.

by https://www.memsproject.info/

TouchPlate Image from https://www.memsproject.info/

If you had any doubt????

If you had any doubt that Don Buchla had a different approach to sound, synthesis and life in general, please read a bit of this advertisement (?) , manual (?), prayer (?) or perhaps just refreshingly crisp word salad copied from the Buchla US website. 

In fact, it’s well documented that Don Buchla was well connected with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters. Below is a picture of the Buchla Box that was used a PA and effects system at Trips Festivals.

It’s no mystery that Don was a known participant at the Trips Festivals in San Francisco, often helping with the sound and music aspects of the festival. The San Francisco Tape Music Center system was hauled to the festivals and used as a central nervous system/public address station where the MC could manipulate sound and address the audience with modulated voice and psychedelic effects to enhance the audio-visual experience.

by https://www.memsproject.info/

The Buchla 700 -Don’s first MIDI synth

Buchla 700 with Touchplates from VintageSynth.com

The Buchla 700 was a digital synth made by Don Buchla in 1987 and it had tons of MIDI control, a display with graphics and the classic Touchplates that Don is well known for. 

Buchla MIDI controllers- Thunder, Lightning, Marimba Lumina

Don was always looking to innovate to provide original tools for live artistic expression and by the late 1980s Don recognized the lack of original interfaces in the market and focused on designing unique and different MIDI controllers. 

Don’s controllers fully exploited the possibilities of MIDI: Thunder read location and pressure of the fingers mapped to an ergonomic and artistic layout, the Lightning interprets gestures by 2 independent wireless wands, and the Marimba Lumina sees the strikes and location of 4 independent mallets. 

All three could be programmed turn its recognized gestures into almost any combination of MIDI notes and controllers. And those three are only include a partial list of the controller ideas that were being worked on. 

Don was always inventive and never stopped exploring.

Buchla Lightning Wand MIDI Controller

Buchla Thunder

Buchla Marimba Lunima- Copyright Joel Davel

For more information on Don Buchla, please check out the following websites


Buchla 200e: Part 1

Alongside Bob Moog, Don Buchla is one of the founding fathers of synthesis, and yet much less is known of him and his instruments. With this two-part review of Buchla’s latest synth, and a history of some of his pioneering work, we hope to redress the balance…


Don Buchla | Oral Histories | NAMM.org

Don Buchla grew up with a passion for music and a passion for engineering. When he combined the two loves, he created electronic musical instruments the world had never dreamed of before. His early