Buchla Electronic Musical Instruments

Company Name: Buchla Electronic Musical Instruments
Date Founded: 1963
Location: Grants Pass, OR USA
Site: buchla.com

Pioneering synthesizer designer and manufacturer who developed one of the first modular synthesizers. Buchla attended the University of California-Berkeley in the late 1950s, where he began thinking about electronic musical instruments designed for live performance. In 1962, he was commissioned by the San Francisco Tape Music Center, a noted tape studio of the time, to create such an instrument. The result was the Series 100 modular synthesizer line, which went into commercial production in 1963 (give or take a year; sources vary). Buchla discovered the concept of voltage control at the same time as Bob Moog; as they were working on opposite coasts of the U.S., they did not become aware of each other’s work until after both had completed and exhibited prototype instruments. Thus, they are both given credit today for developing this critical concept of analog synthesizers.

“I saw no reason to borrow from a keyboard, which is a device invented to throw hammers at strings and, later on, for operating switches for electronic organs and so on. A keyboard is dictatorial. When you’ve got a black-and-white keyboard there, it’s hard to play anything but keyboard music.”


Buchla 100 series
The original Buchla modular synthesizer, originally commissioned by Morton Subotnick and Ramon Sender and funded by a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation. The earliest modules have no company name on the front panel, or are labeled “San Francisco Tape Music Center.” Later modules were offered through the musical instruments division of CBS.

Buchla 100

Unlike Moog, Buchla did not build piano-like keyboards for his early instruments. The basic System 100 came equipped with an array of capacitive touch pads, each of which could be adjusted to produce any desired control voltage, which made it far more amenable to experimenting with alternate scales than the early Moog instruments. There were other conceptual differences between Buchla and Moog synths, such as the former’s inclusion of voltage controlled oscillators with multiple complex modulation options and less emphasis on using filters, which led to a division of thinking that became known as the East Coast and West Coast schools of thought. The West Coast school, led by Buchla and later Serge, put more emphasis on the experimental side of electronic music and designed their synths accordingly. (At least according to the conventional wisdom.)

In the early 1970s, Buchla became the first synth manufacturer to experiment with computer control. The result, the System 500, used a very expensive PDP-11 minicomputer (microprocessors were not commercially available yet), and was largely confined to academic institutions. This became something of a trend for Buchla, and the relative lack of exposure for Buchla instruments in popular music resulted Buchla’s name being much less known to the public than competitors such as Moog and ARP. Throughout the ’70s and early ’80s, Buchla continued to release groundbreaking synths which were something of a trade secret for electronic-music insiders, although some Bay Area musicians did use Buchlas in more accessible music, Suzanne Ciani being one example. Because of this, Buchla often did not receive his due at the time for his efforts.

Buchla never really got on board with digital synthesis methods, so as analog lost popularity in the late ’80s, he withdrew from synth design and turned to designing alternative MIDI controllers. A series of devices named Thunder, Lightning, Wind, etc., allowed performers to generate MIDI data using hand and body gestures. A collaboration with Bob Moog brought about the Piano Bar, released in 2002 and sold by Moog (and still in production). During this period, Buchla also became interested in the possibilities of applying electronic-music technology to enhancing human communication and aiding handicapped people. He developed a number of mobility and communication aids, and also worked on physiological telemetry systems for use in hospitals and aerospace applications.

Buchla 200 series
The Buchla 200 series Electric Music Box[3] replaced the previous model in 1970 and represented a significant advance in technology. Almost every parameter can be controlled from an external control voltage.

Buchla 300, 500, Touché
In the mid 1970s, Don Buchla began experimenting with digital designs and computer-controlled systems. The results were the 500 series[4] and the 300 series,[5] both of which paired the new technology with existing 200 series modules to create hybrid analog/digital systems. The Touché[6] was also the result of this research, and was also his final attempt to market a “mainstream” Buchla synth[citation needed].

Buchla 400, 700, and MIDAS
Also in 1980s, Buchla released the 400 series[7] and the 700 series[8] software controlled instruments operated by MIDAS, a Forth language for musical instruments, and also equipped with MIDI.

Buchla 250e Arbitrary Function Generator

Buchla Music Easel

Buchla 200e series
Finally, in 2004, Don Buchla returned to designing full blown modular electronic instruments with the 200e, a hybrid system using digital microprocessors that uses the same size modules and signals as the 100 and 200 series systems. The 200e modules convert all signals to analog at the panel, appearing to the user like an analog system, with patch cables. Systems can be built using a combination of 100, 200 and 200e modules. The 200e modules connect through a digital communications bus, allowing the system to store the settings of the knobs and switches

Buchla 200e

I developed relatively sophisticated designs and think about them and model them until I’m happy with the design. Then I design it and usually the first take is the production model. I’ll design up a panel and that’s some of the designs I created in the ‘70s are still being built and they were originally designed for use, for production. We didn’t have time to go through a lot of prototype stages. Don Buchla

However, he got involved again when he was brought in by Gibson in 1995 to try to salvage the Oberheim OB-MX project. That notorious project wound up being largely a failure (not considered Buchla’s fault; prevailing opinion among industry historians is that Gibson had hopelessly botched the project before Buchla was brought in). But Buchla noted the resurgence in popularity of analog synth designs. He went to work on something he had experimented with before but never really put into production, that being a computer-controlled modular synth, and the result was the 200e modular series. The company that Buchla opened in 1962, Buchla and Associates is still in business today, and Buchla himself is still active in running the company and marketing the products. Buchla maintains an interest in composing music and frequently collaborates with experimental composers such as Morton Subotnick (one of the San Francisco Tape Music Center artists who commissioned Buchla’s first synth), David Rosenboom, and Allan Strange.

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