Conversations with the Masters of Electronic Instrument Design at Moogfest 2017

Main Image by Alex Kacha

For many visitors, the main draw of Moogfest lies somewhere in the lineup of performances from electronic music masters like Suzanne Ciani, Animal Collective, and Flying Lotus. For people like me — nerds who love learning about the history of music and music tech — it's the daytime lineup of panels and lectures that make us flock to Durham, NC.

This year, amidst a four–day schedule stacked with panels on performance, culture, and technology with themes like "transhumanism" and "techno–shamanism", three presenters struck me as absolute must–sees: Dave Rossum of iconic synth brand E–mu Systems, Ableton CEO and co–founder Gerhard Behles, and synth design icon Dave Smith.

In each of their presentations, these innovators discussed their life’s work through common threads like the intersection of business and creative expression, the feedback loop between instrument designer and end–user, how the electronic musical instrument industry has evolved over the years, and where it could go next.

Here's a quick recap on what they each had to say.

Dave Rossum of E–mu Systems and Rossum Electro–Music: From Analog to Digital and Back

Dave Rossum

Dave Rossum has been involved with synthesizers since the very beginning, and his talk on Thursday, "From Analog to Digital and Back", charted a Bilbo Baggins–like journey of his various projects and instrument designs through five decades.

The Caltech grad holds 36 patents, and his technology was used in many of the landmark synths by other firms, like Sequential Circuits and Oberheim.

As the founder of E–mu Systems, Rossum is most closely associated with breakout early digital samplers like the Emulator II, but his work in synths goes back another generation to the analog scene in Silicon Valley in the 1970s. He described those days using similar tropes as those found in garage–dwelling origin stories of companies like Microsoft and Apple.

Indeed, many of the big names in synth history knew each other and collaborated to various degrees, with constant cross–pollination fueling friendly competition and innovation throughout the '70s and early '80s.

Rossum recounted playing a Moog in grad school at UC Santa Cruz as the moment that changed his life. In those days, institutionally installed Moog systems came with schematics, and before long Rossum was building his own synth modules and, eventually, complete systems.

Rossum then walked his captive audience down a timeline of his synths, from the foundation of E–mu through the digital '80s to the present with his new company, Rossum Electro–Music.

Rossum included this recording of The Planets by Holst in his presentation.

He peppered the chronology with anecdotes of instances when he heard his work in action. He cited Patrick Gleeson using one of his modular systems on a recording of The Planets by Gustav Holst as a personal breakthrough moment.

In the same vein, he recounted when Leon Russell and his then–synth–programmer Roger Linn came to test and ultimately purchase one of Rossum’s modular systems. That synth would go on to be featured on Russell's landmark Will O'the Wisp album from 1975.

From the later digital sampler era of E–mu, Rossum played a clip from "Blade Runner" in which one of the original Emulator samples could be heard in the background as Rick Deckard drinks an exotic–looking cocktail on the streets of Los Angeles, 2019.

E-mu Emulator II

For all these musical placements and touchstones, though, the crux of Rossum’s talk centered around his many technical achievements and their ongoing evolution.

Rossum, for instance, built what he believes to be the first microprocessor–driven piece of synth gear in the form of the 4060 keyboard. This controller helped unlock polyphony by creating a mechanism which dictated which note on the keyboard goes to which voice in an analog system.

Other major products explored included the Drumulator drum machine which evolved into the landmark SP–12. Rossum described the sampler as the "product that would not die." Released in 1986, the SP–12 is still popular in the hip–hop production community.

In regards to the iconic E–mu Emulator keyboards, Rossum discussed how his cutting-edge deployment of microprocessors in synthesizers built on the template introduced by the C.M.I Fairlight before it. Whereas each voice on the Fairlight was its own complete computer, the E–mu Emulator's voices all shared memory making it more efficient and cheaper to produce.

While I was somewhat familiar with E–mu prior to this talk, the overarching theme was one I had not previously considered: Unlike Sequential Circuits, ARP, or Moog, E–mu was the only American-based synth manufacturer to make the leap from analog to digital to full DSP–driven instruments. The firm was acquired by Creative Labs in the early '90s which turned its focus to workstation rackmount modules, before phasing out production over the past decade.

According to Rossum, he failed to see the vision of full computer–driven workstations as has become the norm in recent years.

Rossum closed with an overview of his new company, Rossum Electro–Music. This firm is diving head first into the Eurorack format with modules that build on many of Rossum's pioneering designs over the years.

The new Evolution filter module, for instance, is a variable character ladder filter that builds on his first patent, which was largely influenced by the original Moog ladder filter. The module already appears to be one of the hotter recent Eurorack releases.

When asked why Eurorack is his next chapter, Rossum expressed a sentiment that was clear throughout all of Moogfest: the Eurorack community is exciting and welcoming, and seems to understand that while competing with one another, it's best to work together to expand the format and bring new players into the community.

In this way, the Eurorack community’s current state doesn't seem too dissimilar from the early synth days in Silicon Valley, with its network of support and innovation.

Ableton CEO Gerhard Behles Describes the "Meta Musician"

Gerhard Behles

As you probably know, Ableton Live has become a dominant piece of software and music creation technology of the past decade. There's a generation of producers who define their music by their Ableton workflow, and it was clear that many such adherents were in attendance at Gerhard Behles's Moogfest presentation on Friday.

Behles described the origins of the company and its software in his own performance experience in Berlin in the '90s with “Monolake” alongside Robert Henke. The meat of his talk, though, centered on the evolving ways in which humans make music, and how instruments can keep pace with these changes.

In Behles' view, as the recording studio grew more sophisticated through the 20th century, it became an instrument unto itself. Les Paul's studio experiments and dub production in Jamaica anticipated the trend, and the advent of synthesizers only accelerated it. The process of making a recording has become as important as the instrument and player, with ever more immediate workflows and tools reaching the market every year.

But what does this mean for the people involved?

According to Behles, the idea of a "producer" has been totally redefined. He pointed to Quincy Jones as an archetype of the producer in the '80s. When Jones produced Thriller, his job was to coordinate the collaboration between a hundred of the most talented writers, arrangers, engineers, and musicians in the business.

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By comparison, today's "producer" needs to be a capable composer, instrumentalist, engineer — and perhaps a DJ, booking agent, and label manager — while holding down a day job. Technology has made it so today's music maker fills ten roles at the same time, which Behles terms the "meta musician."

This newfound paradigm of total control is at once liberating and overwhelming. For the team at Ableton, it's translated into a core mission of creating tools to inspire "bliss" and "uninterrupted flow" at every step of the process. Ableton Live accommodates all these various facets in a highly innovative way, and is, in this sense, a "meta instrument" for the "meta musician."

From a hardware perspective, this has found expression in the form of increasingly flexible controllers like Ableton's Push 2. Behles sees the lineage dating back to the original MPC and the work of Roger Linn, with a legacy that continues through the work of Native Instruments, Pioneer, and many others.

Behles wants his users to love their instruments the way a violinist loves her violin. And taking a cue from a player in a symphony, Ableton sees better collaboration between producers as a next wave in the expansion of their product.

Encouraging moments of music bliss is a central tenant to Ableton, but Behles believes that enabling users to find that bliss together, in collaboration, is even more powerful.

The charming CEO closed with a discussion of an some of the company's educational initiatives that run in lockstep with these other guiding principles. Ableton has, for instance, recently launched an extensive music education website that takes visitors on an interactive tour of different aspects of the production process.

More inspiring still, Ableton has started sending refurbished hardware to classrooms and sponsoring music education programs throughout the world. According to Behles, kids these days just intuitively get how the software works. In these sessions, they are shown the basics of such topics like sampling and beat making.

Dave Smith of Sequential Circuits and DSI on Design and the Market

Dave Smith at Moogfest 2017

With three different sessions on his docket, Dave Smith was one of the marquee names of the entire lineup. Two of Dave's presentations took similar Q&A format, while a third saw the iconic synth innovator host a Prophet–6 masterclass with SURVIVE, the band behind last year's smash hit Stranger Things soundtrack.

As the founder of Sequential Circuits and Dave Smith Instruments, and one of the co–inventors of MIDI, Smith is an icon and active elder statesman in the synth community. Like Dave Rossum, Dave Smith was there in the frontier analog days and got his start by building a sequencer for his Minimoog before marketing the device to other players.

While running Sequential Circuits, Smith would release polyphonic Prophet 5, one of the most famous and important synths of all time. Apart from sounding awesome, the Prophet's integration of microprocessors allowed for one of the first successful deployments of patchable memory across 5 voices.

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Smith had come from a string of Silicon Valley design jobs focused around microprocessors, so the idea of bringing one into a synthesizer design seemed fairly obvious. Around this time, other companies like Rossum's E–mu were building chip sets with whole integrated synth functions that allowed all these ideas to come together in a complete system.

The Prophet 5's template proved so successful that within a few years of its launch in 1978, most of the major synth brands released models with similar capabilities such as the Oberheim OB–X series, the Moog Memorymoog, and the Korg PolySix.

During one of his Q&As, Smith described what he calls the "digital dark ages" between the mid–'80s and 2000s during which, to paraphrase his explanation, everyone was essentially just trying to build bigger and better Korg M–1s.

Smith points to 2002 as a crucial turning point. It was in this year that he founded Dave Smith Instruments as a one–man shop and launched the Evolver synth, as well as the year the modern incarnation of Moog Music Inc was founded.

Smith is quick to point out that the current wave of analog fandom is markedly different from the original epoch in the '70s.

For the current generation of synthesists, it’s a given that analog synths are a unique instrument with native musical appeal. But at the time when the Prophet 5 came out, as Smith tells it, most players were trying to use synthesizers to emulate other sounds. This continued a trend started by organs in the '60s that had settings labeled "clarinet" and "strings."

That desire made the highly programmable Prophet 5 such a success in its day.

Sampling keyboards — like those of E–mu Systems and later workstations like the M1 and DX7 — ended up being better with emulation than analogs could ever be. It's only in this new post–2002 chapter where the dominant group of analog synth users is primarily interested in analog for analog's sake.

Today, Smith operates Dave Smith Instruments in San Francisco. It’s a company of 14 synth heads that focuses solely on building instruments they're interested in building.

Like Moog and other synth brands, DSI constantly balances honoring its legacy sounds and synth designs with moving towards the future. For the team at DSI, this can come down to a recurring discussion about whether to call a new product the "Prophet ___" or something else entirely.

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