San Francisco’s Role in Synth Development

The San Francisco Bay Area has played a large role in the development of the modern synthesizer, starting with the pioneering work of Don Buchla and the many advancements of Dave Smith to boundary-pushing companies in the present day.

Let’s take a look back at how the San Francisco region helped foster an environment that encouraged creativity and risk-taking and eventually led to some of the most groundbreaking developments in synthesizer history.

San Francisco: In The Beginning

Before we jump into it, it would be helpful to touch on the general history of San Francisco: this quiet part of Northern California turned into a magnetic boomtown almost overnight when gold was discovered in the mountains east of the city. pulling treasure seekers and unique characters literally from all over the world to the sleepy port town.

San Francisco and its surrounding Bay Area have since evolved into a home for forward-thinking visionaries and dreamers, including North Beach's beatniks in the 1950s and Haight-Ashbury's countercultural revolutionaries in the 1960s. The Bay Area has long been the perfect petri dish to incubate and grow an industry that thrives on the cutting edge and the acceptance of new ideas and viewpoints.

321 Divisidero Street: A New Kind Of Music

San Francisco's music changed in the 1960s along with its broader culture—not just psychedelic acid rock, but a new kind of music that relied on electronics and reel to reel tape. Its epicenter was the San Francisco Tape Music Center, founded in 1962 at 321 Divisidero Street, just around the corner from the soon-to-be famous Haight Street. Co-founders Morton Subotnick and Ramon Sender were looking for a new machine to realize their dream of musical composition assembled entirely in the studio without involving hiring musicians. The man they commissioned to create such a machine was none other than Don Buchla.

North Berkeley Near Ashkenaz: Buchla Modular

The story of how Don created the first Buchla modules, the 100-series, is too long and detailed for a piece of this length. Suffice it to say that one of the twin pillars of synthesizer development—the other being Bob Moog and his own modular creations happening in New York at the same time—was erected in San Francisco. Its importance cannot be overstated.

One of Don Buchla's most coveted instruments is the Music Easel, first introduced in 1973.

Is there a connection between the freewheeling, accepting attitude of San Francisco and Don’s creations? “How could it not!” is the answer from Joel Davel, lead developer at Buchla and Don's right-hand man for the last two decades of his life at the company. Located in Berkeley, California, just across the bay from San Francisco, Buchla's base was set up in various locations including warehouses with experimental lights and art, but also residences he lived in with floors converted for electronics assembly. Not your typical headquarters.

As Davel explains it, Don was an “influential participant” in the culture that surrounded him at the time, “from his interactions with Owsley Stanley (particularly as it related to multi-channel live sound for the Grateful Dead), to the SF Tape Center/Mills College Center for Contemporary Music and the experimental music scene… but also through the ‘80s until 2016 participating in concerts and interacting with composers and technologists out here.”

Buchla’s contributions to synthesis are manifold, from the early adoption and integration of digital control in hybrid systems in the early 1970s to an emphasis on complex oscillators and optically-coupled low pass gates. He also pioneered the use of capacitive keyboards and touch plates. While not as popular or as widespread as the kinds of synths that Moog would develop, Buchla's were more unique and idiosyncratic—in other words, more San Francisco.

Don died in 2016 but his creations live on—his modules and ideas are arguably more popular than ever before.

Stanford, Palo Alto: From The Bay To Japan

Jump on Route 101 heading south from San Francisco and exit onto University Avenue in Palo Alto—keep heading west and after crossing El Camino Real, you’ll arrive at the Stanford campus. While it might not be the first thing people think of when they hear the word “synthesizer”, it just might be if you preface it with “FM.”

Around the same time that Don Buchla was building his 100-series modules, musician and composer John M. Chowning was developing the algorithm that would become FM synthesis at Stanford. In 1974, he licensed the new synthesis technology to Yamaha, who would eventually introduce it in the form of the ultra-popular DX-7 along with several other FM synthesizers.

Yamaha would later enter into another licensing partnership with Stanford and Chowning’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics in 1989, this time for digital waveguide synthesis, a chief component in physical modeling—from the San Francisco Bay Area to Japan and then out to the whole world.

Santa Cruz: New And Experimental Ideas

Keep heading south down the San Francisco Peninsula, pass through San Jose and the Silicon Valley, and head west over the hills on Highway 17: your destination is Santa Cruz, a seaside town of surfers, university students, and free-thinkers. It was here in 1971 that E-mu Systems started—well, unofficially at least.

“E-mu was (to my knowledge) the second synthesizer company in the Bay Area,” explains Dave Rossum, E-mu’s co-founder. “We predated several small companies, and the well-known successes Sequential and Digidrums. In fact, both those companies will point to early collaborations with E-mu Systems—but our kinship was not limited to the Bay Area. We also worked in those early days with Tom Oberheim and later did the design review for the LM-1 for Roger Linn.”

Dave, who was also the main designer for the majority of the SSM synthesizer chips for Solid State Microtechnology for Music—another Bay Area company—would find Santa Cruz to be a welcoming place to start a synthesizer company.

“In contrast to the other synth companies on the West Coast, when we opened our doors in 1972 we didn't care what kind of music you made. We embraced the use of synthesizers. (E-mu co-founder) Scott Wedge traveled to the musician's union meeting in Los Angeles where they wanted to ban synthesizer use and he carried the day. Among the first big customers for the Emulator were San Francisco's The Residents, definitely an avant-garde group. Santa Cruz, like Berkeley and San Francisco, is supportive of new and experimental ideas.”

Some of these new and experimental ideas that came out of E-mu and the mind of Dave Rossum include the SP-1200 (of which Dave is the most proud), as well as the E-mu Modular keyboard, which was later licensed by Tom Oberheim for Oberheim's early polyphonic synthesizers.

Dave currently operates out of his lab at Universal Audio in Scotts Valley just outside of Santa Cruz and continues to push the boundaries with Rossum Electro-Music and Eurorack modules.

From San Jose To North Beach, San Francisco: The Sequential Story

In the late 1970s, a dedicated pair of young men with a dream set up a workshop in a garage in San Jose, in what would eventually become known as Silicon Valley. The product they developed there would upend the existing market and completely change how people work creatively for years to come. For some, this might as well be the tale of Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, but for us, this can only be the origin story of Dave Smith and John Bowen’s Prophet-5 and Sequential Circuits.

Released in 1977, the Prophet-5 was a game-changing synthesizer: it was polyphonic, first incorporating Solid State Music chips designed by Dave Rossum of E-mu Systems before evolving to CEM chips (also designed by Dave). The digital keyboard scanning function that made the keyboard possible was also licensed from E-Mu. You can just imagine the two Daves shuttling back and forth across Silicon Valley over to Santa Cruz getting these ideas all ironed out.

The response was massive and it put Sequential on the map—not only for the San Francisco Bay Area but the synthesizer market. Sequential followed up the Prophet-5 with the dual-manual Prophet-10, the monophonic Pro-One, and many more. Dave Smith also spearheaded a little something you may have heard of called MIDI.

Check out this career-spanning 2014 interview with the late great Dave Smith, courtesy of Waveshaper Media.

After going out of business and doing some work for Yamaha and Korg, Dave Smith was back making synthesizers by the early 2000s, first as Dave Smith Instruments and then finally once again as Sequential. Although Dave sadly passed away earlier this year, the company continues on at its new headquarters in North Beach in San Francisco.

Thanks to Dave Smith’s influence, two other titans of the industry have made the Bay Area their home. One of them is Tom Oberheim, whose OB-6 and OB-X8 synths were made with the help of Sequential; the other is Roger Linn, who relocated to Los Altos near San Jose where he runs Roger Linn Design. The Bay is the place to be.

Orinda: The New Wave

Unless you’re from the Bay Area, you’ve probably never heard of Orinda: secluded in the hills of the East Bay on the far side of the Caldecott Tunnel, it's a quiet suburban town. You’d never guess it was home to up-and-coming synthesizer company Groove Synthesis, creators of the new 3rd Wave synthesizer.

“Since we’re a startup, we feel it’s a bit early to place ourselves among such giants as Dave Smith, Tom Oberheim, Don Buchla, and Roger Linn,” answers Mark Wilcox from Groove Synthesis when asked how it feels to be a part of Bay Area synth history. “But we’ve had the great honor to have worked with Tom and Dave and have learned much from them. So in that sense, we might be doing our small part to continue that history. The Bay Area has been a fertile ground for innovation in many creative fields for a very long time. We’re proud to be part of that.”

Although Groove Synthesis’ first—3rd Wave—is a modern reinterpretation of a German synthesizer (the PPG Wave), Mark also sees a connection in it to the Bay Area. “Wavetable synthesis was originally invented by Max Mathews at Bell Labs as part of his MUSIC audio programming language, and Max later became a professor of electronic music at Stanford University. I believe that the PPG was the first viable commercial implementation of a wavetable synthesizer, although it was also possible to string single cycle waveforms together in the Fairlight CMI."

Our team checked out the Groove Synthesis 3rd Wave for ourselves at NAMM 2022.

"One of the happy accidents of the PPG implementation is a DSP artifact called imaging," Wilcox continues. "This artifact is also present in the Prophet VS from Sequential, and although the VS is not a wavetable instrument, this artifact is part of what makes both the PPG and the VS sound interesting. Part of what is in the 3rd Wave definitely has some DNA from Max Matthews, Wolfgang Palm, and the original Prophet VS from Sequential.”

When asked what he loves about the San Francisco Bay Area, Mark replies, “Overall, it’s just an inspiring place to live and work. Some of us have been in the Bay Area since childhood. There are so many resources at hand, whether it's research, manufacturing, or talented music people; there are ideas bouncing around everywhere. And, there's great music, great food, the vast Pacific Ocean… What’s not to love?”

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