The Basics of East Coast and West Coast Synthesis

The object of synthesis has always been the formulation of new workflows. In particular, two methodologies have consistently represented divergent ends of the spectrum. The terms “East Coast Synthesis” and “West Coast Synthesis” are tossed around quite a bit nowadays—but what exactly do they designate?

Some claim these terms to be misnomers, the argument being that both have pervaded modern synthesis to the extent that one can claim it is a conflation of both styles. While this is true, it is important to note that each style — regarding both philosophy and technological layout — is rooted in a different historical trajectory and appeals to disparate aesthetic concerns.

The inventions of Robert Moog and Donald Buchla in the 1960s fundamentally reshaped the possibilities of the sonic landscape and contributed to the groundwork for the philosophical and technological development evident in modern synthesizer theory and practice. Moog began his work in Trumansberg, New York while Buchla got his start in Berkeley, California — hence the designation of East and West Coast. Though they were contemporaries, each approached their craft from divergent perspectives and amidst vastly different social settings.

Despite their differences, both approaches were borne out of social revolution. 1960s New York was a site of political and social upheaval. Many labor struggles, such as strikes initiated by the Transport Workers Union of America, the United Federation of Teachers and the Stonewall Riots embodied the grim realities of the gritty, business-driven atmosphere.

In a sense, the straightforward and practical East Coast approach embodies these qualities in its aspirations towards efficiency, expediency and reliability. Meanwhile, on the West Coast, Buchla was working amidst a prevalent counter-culture bent on experimenting with expanded consciousness and alternative lifestyles. The non-traditional, otherworldly sounds that his machines produced could be seen as an extension and reflection of this culture.

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East Coast

East Coast patches fall under the category of subtractive synthesis, meaning their layout and resulting sound is achieved by a voltage-controlled lowpass filter (VCF). The VCF removes harmonic content from a waveform, itself generated by an oscillator. Traditional VCFs feature a transistor ladder circuit, which gives them a steep cutoff slope that results in a distinctly punchy sound that has come to be both a staple of East Coast synthesis and one of the most recognizable sounds in synthesizer history.

Typical oscillators in traditional East Coast systems are capable of producing harmonically-rich waveforms, such as square, sawtooth, and pulse waves — typically from multiple outputs. The oscillators produce deep and powerful tones that are then mixed, with the option of applying saturation and clipping, before processing them through the filter. In the filter stage the harmonics are subtracted and the resonance is swept to create shifts in timbre. From the filter, the signal is patched to a Voltage-Controlled Amplifier (VCA), which varies the gain in accordance with the control voltage patched into its CV input. From there, it is routed to an outboard mixer or headphones.

Moog Modular Synth Setup at Moogfest 2016

Continuing the ease-of-use motif, East Coast patches are typically mediated by a simple four-stage ADSR envelope generator, the output of which is either patched to the filter or to the VCA (or both if a dual-output ADSR is used). ADSR envelopes differ from their AD/AR West Coast counterparts in terms of their control interface. As their name indicates, ADSRs govern specific portions of the transience of each signal; namely, the attack, decay, sustain and release. The four-stage control over the envelope falls in line with the East Coast practicality in that all parameters are accessible through a musically ergonomic interface.

The key to the success of the East Coast format was undoubtedly the ease of use it afforded conventional musicians. This is most clearly epitomized in the keyboard, the final component of the (very basic) East Coast patch layout. The keyboard appealed to both aspiring and working musicians because, in addition to bringing instant familiarity to what was otherwise an esoteric piece of gear, it afforded a control over the instrument that was more suited to Western sensibilities and helped synthesizers attain immediate visual appeal in the eyes of both beginners and seasoned musicians.

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West Coast

Instead of aspiring to musical efficiency by appealing to established tradition, the West Coast approach evolved out of a desire to replicate acoustically-generated tones by way of manipulating recorded sounds. In following this trajectory, it effectively rejected an established tradition and founded a new one. This against-the-grain philosophy pervades the West Coast workflow.

Rather than a voltage-controlled filter, one way to vary the harmonic interest in West Coast patches is by using a waveshaper (though it should be noted that this is only one type of synthesis inherent to the West Coast style). Where a VCF removes harmonic content from a signal, a waveshaper maps the input and the output of the waveform and applies either a fixed or variable mathematical function (commonly known as the “shaping function”) that alters the shape of the waveform, resulting in a more abrasive sound than that typical of its East Coast parallel.

Buchla 200e 18 Boat System

West Coast patches feature another unique and useful component: the low pass gate. LPGs are essentially a voltage-controlled-filter-amplifier (VCFA), meaning they are like a low pass VCF that reacts like a VCA. The LPGs cutoff frequency operates at subsonic ranges, meaning the signal is inaudible until activated by control voltage. The CV input of most LPGs utilizes vactorals that are plucked/pinged via control voltage to create quick, percussive sounds emulative of bongos, congas, marimbas, etc. LPGs were designed by Buchla and included in the 200 series on its initial release.

Likewise, the West Coast’s AD/AR Function Generators are designed to assist in the creation of quick, naturalistic, percussive sounds. Unlike their East Coast analogues, AD/AR Function Generators have two stages to their envelopes. When fed triggers, they act as attack-decay envelopes, whereas when they are fed gates they act as attack-release envelopes. This makes them ideal for portamento (i.e., “slew”) style shaping in that they are specifically oriented to control the rise and fall times of the envelope.

The final, most individuated component of the West Coast philosophy is the sequencer. This piece represents Buchla’s refusal to conform to the contours of established tradition. In his view, synthesis is about exploring the obscure rather than adhering to a fixed structure. Buchla’s touch plate sequencer embodies this philosophy by employing touch pads, which respond to the amount of skin across their surface rather than how hard/soft they are pressed, in lieu of the familiar keyboard. Thus, the Buchla sequencer lacks the familiarity and immediacy of the East Coast keyboard and contributes to the peculiarity of the West Coast approach.

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Putting It All Together

Modern synthesis is essentially an amalgamation of both East and West Coast philosophies and more. With the increasing popularity of modular formats, such as Eurorack, musicians are free to shape their sound as they see fit by building an instrument comprised of individual components (modules) intended to lend a desired functionality. These modules can then be patched in a variety of ways in order to achieve a diverse array of sounds. Many upcoming products cleverly poke fun at this realization (Make Noise’s 0-Coast, anyone?). In this sense, Moog and Buchla’s divergent intentions progress side by side: synthesizers continue to be utilized in sync with classical musical ambitions while simultaneously challenging the scope of what is possible.

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