The Synths and Electronic Gear of Space Rock

If the genre of psychedelic rock primed a launching pad, then space rock was the rocket fuel that hurled a million blotter-munching space cadets into the outer reaches of the cosmos. Bands like Pink Floyd, Hawkwind, Gong, and later, Spacemen 3 and Moon Duo harnessed the music of the spheres to help guide our galaxy-faring lysergic jaunts.

While most used the traditional structure of guitar, bass, and drums as a starting point, the ways in which the palette was interpreted varied wildly from group to group with disparate keyboards and plenty of effects helping to create atmosphere and add to the freeform freakout experience.

Despite the pioneering and unique ways these bands stretched and bent their guitars and effects in the service of space, that's not why we're here. Today, we're going to explore the more esoteric side of the music and look at how synthesizers and other electronic machines were used to supercharge these sonic space explorations.

The Synths of Pink Floyd

Pink Floyd builds the Synthi track for "On the Run," in this clip taken from Pink Floyd: Live at Pompeii.

One of the first bands to be called space rock was Pink Floyd. With the departure of founder Syd Barrett and the arrival of guitarist David Gilmour, the band moved from the psych-pop feel of their early output to a more cosmic place, as heard on their second album, A Saucerful of Secrets (1968).

"Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun" and the lengthy, eerie title track best exemplify the deep-space vibe of this period. A big part of the sound was keyboardist Richard Wright's Farfisa Compact Duo organ paired with a Binson Echorec, a magnetic drum-based delay effects unit. Gilmour and bassist Roger Waters also used the Echorec, particularly on "One of These Days" and the title track on Echoes in 1972.

The next big change in the band's sound came in 1973 with The Dark Side of the Moon, a monumental album in '70s rock. Although there was still some exploration to be done, the band's sound was far more focused than on earlier releases, particularly on the synthesizer-lead instrumentals. Yes, synthesizers: by this time, the band had added a number of synths to its control panel, including Wright's Moog Minimoog and ARP String Ensemble.

No discussion of The Dark Side of the Moon would be complete without a mention of the EMS gear used by every member of the band save for drummer Nick Mason—this included both a VCS 3 and the keyboard-equipped Synthi AKS. "On The Run" is almost entirely Synthi, with its onboard sequencer generating the notes.

Another EMS piece of gear that the band employed on the sessions was a Synthi Hi-Fli, a very rare (only 350 were made) multi-effect processor that looked like a piece of medical equipment or—more appropriately—a spaceship control panel.

It had controls for treble boost, octave shift, ring modulation, and sustain fuzz, as well as six modes of operation, including vibrator, phasing, wah, and moving resonant peaks. Gilmour used a prototype model of the unit, which was originally marketed as a guitar synthesizer and designed by David Cockerell of Electro-Harmonix.

Wright's growing collection of Minimoog, ARP String Ensemble and EMS keyboards reached a peak with the band's next record, Wish You Were Here—check out "Welcome To The Machine" and all its whirring and clicking noises to hear some masterful EMS sound design.

As Pink Floyd became more popular and moved away from their space rock roots, they never really abandoned synthesizers. Rick Wright's later touring rig included a Roland JX-10, as well as a Kurzweil K2000 sampling keyboard and a K2000S to handle piano and electric piano duties.

The Electronics of Hawkwind

Hawkwind - Brainstorm - (Live at Stonehenge Free Festival, UK, 1984)

Ask someone what band they think of when they hear "space rock"—if the answer isn't Pink Floyd, it's probably Hawkwind. Although both came out of the late '60s psychedelic scene, Hawkwind's brand of music is decidedly different: if Pink Floyd are the house band on a leisurely interstellar journey, Hawkwind are chemically-fueled adventurers blasting down a wormhole in a rickety homemade rocket.

With their focus on aggressive guitars and speed (both tempo and narcotic), their sound is almost proto-punk, but it's their pulp-fiction sci-fi lyrics and freaky electronics that ensure them a place in the space rock hall of fame.

Notice we said "electronics" and not "synthesizers." This is because the band's first electronics rig was closer to something you'd find on the test bench at an electronics factory than part of a rock band's rig. DikMik (Michael Davies)—the first of many electronics wranglers for the group—started with an audio generator, a raw oscillator capable of putting out tones and not much else.

He ran this through a Watkins Copicat tape echo and various other gloriously ramshackle contraptions, contributing a big part to why the band's early work sounds so alien. When keyboardist Del Dettmar came on later, they too added an EMS VCS 3 to the mix, which could work in some Floyd-style arpeggiated weirdness and processing of other instruments a la Brian Eno's work in Roxy Music. Check out the epic "Brainstorm" to hear this in action.

As time went on and the band evolved, they took on a number of different synthesizers as they hit the market, utilizing whatever it took to keep expanding consciousness through music. Live and on record, this included a Korg 700, Yamaha CS-80, EDP Wasp, Korg MS-20 and Polysix, Roland Jupiter-8 and Moog Source, among others.

The Synths of Gong

Space rock pushed its galactic boundaries even further throughout the '70s, overlapping with other genres like prog and German kosmische. European band Gong emerged in the late 1960s with a pop psychedelic sound but by the mid-'70s had morphed into something more distinctive, a progressive/space rock hybrid prone to flights of jazz fancy.

Synthesizers played an increasingly larger role in the band as the '70s rolled on. This followed a broad trend across music in general and was likely related to synthesizer manufacturers releasing ever more complex and expressive instruments. Tim Blake, who joined the band in 1972, was Gong's keyboard player for the classic Radio Gnome Invisible trilogy and provided a synthetic and psychedelic backdrop for the other members to do their thing.

A big part of Blake's sound was the Moog Minimoog Model-D, which he used unmodified (it was popular to mod Minimoogs for extra functionality in those days). As with other space rock bands, he also made use of the EMS Synthi A—two of them, in fact. Unlike the Minimoog, these were modified and mounted side-by-side in a custom housing with wires connecting the pin matrices together.

He also used a Mellotron on the albums, although he didn't take it on the road like his Minimoog and Synthi set. After Blake left Gong in 1975, he embarked on a solo career, adding a Yamaha CS-80 and Moog IIIC modular synth to his rig.

The Synths and Processing of Steve Hillage

Another visionary performer who was part of Gong at the same time as Tim Blake was Steve Hillage.

Although he started primarily as their guitarist, he was soon running his guitar through a Minimoog and an EMS synth as part of the glissando technique developed by Gong's founder Daevid Allen, which "involved stroking the strings with a special metal rod, up and down the fretboard," as Hillage told Synapse magazine in 1977. He later began incorporating synths into his solo work as both a melodic instrument and as a way to augment his guitar.

After his solo debut, Fish Rising, Hillage teamed up with producer Todd Rundgren to release L in 1976, a head-expanding mix of guitar, synthesizers, and traditional instruments like tablas and hurdy-gurdys. The album was recorded in the US and saw Hillage backed up by members of Rundgren's band Utopia plus others like Hillage's partner Miquette Giraudy and jazz trumpeter Don Cherry. Synthesizers were also present, including the standard EMS VCS 3, ARP Pro Soloist, a Moog, and an incredibly rare RMI Keyboard Computer played by Roger Powell.

They also got down with some interesting processing: an EMS Synthi Hi-Fli was used on the tablas, and the Eventide Harmonizer was frequently used on the guitars, in addition to some "pitch-to-voltage guitar," as Hillage phrased it in the same Synapse interview. (While the interview doesn't give any more information than this, it's possible that Hillage used an EMS Pitch-To-Voltage Converter with his EMS VCS 3.)

Hillage was clearly interested in the idea of pitch-to-voltage, as 1978's Green features his first use of the Roland GR-500 Guitar Synthesizer, which pairs a specially-built guitar with a synthesizer. "There was one technique I particularly enjoyed on the guitar synth," Hillage told Electronics & Music Maker in 1983.

"Because a fuzz unit turns your sound more or less into a square wave, I used to have a square wave oscillator fed into the fuzz box off the guitar synth which faded in as my guitar sound died away. You couldn't really hear the join, and so it produced infinitely long sustain if you wanted it." Far out.

The album also features a traditional Moog synthesizer, EMS Synthi A and Vocoder, and an ARP 2600 played by Giraudy. "Tim Blake had been one of the first EMS demonstrators," Hillage elaborated in the same interview, "and we got to know the people there and had all our gear modified by them, with buffering on the oscillators for tuning, on the patch bay, sync modifications and so on."

Steve Hillage - Rainbow Dome Musick (Full Album)

Hillage really set the controls for the heart of the synth with Rainbow Dome Musick. Recorded live and incorporating spiritual and meditative use of synthesizers and glissando guitar, it featured the ARP 2600, ARP Omni, a Fender Rhodes, and an Eventide Harmonizer. It also transcended the space rock genre, helping to give birth to the new age genre and—a decade later—ambient house.

Visiting the club Heaven with Giraudy in 1989, Hillage heard DJ Alex Patterson from The Orb spinning the album. After playing on an Orb song, Hillage formed his own electronic music group, System 7, bringing his brand of cosmic spirituality to a new generation.

The Electronics of Ozric Tentacles

There's nothing that says space rock had to sound like Pink Floyd forever. As times and listening habits change, so too does the genre's definition; as long as it's trippy and experimental with plenty of other-worldly sounds, anything goes, really. Nowhere is this more evident than in the work of UK band Ozric Tentacles, who have been pushing the definition's boundaries since the early '80s.

Largely instrumental and with a heavy electronic component, the band—lead by captain Ed Wynne—mixes psychedelic and progressive rock, jazz, reggae, world music, and whatever else catches their eclectic fancy. Born from the UK free festival movement of the '80s, they built a fanbase with all-night performances and self-released tapes.

Ozric Tentacles - Live At Sunrise Festival (2007)

Their electronic gear has been as eclectic as their musical output, incorporating many famous synths over the years. According to their website, their synth rig has included a Sequential Circuits Pro One (on space noise duty), a Sequential Circuits Prophet-600, Roland SH-5 and SH-101, and EMS Synthi AKS, by now the secret sauce of space rock bands.

Digital synthesizers have included a Roland D-50, Korg Wavestation, Prophecy and M50, Access Virus B, Roland JD800 and JP8000, Novation SuperNova 2, Ensoniq Fizmo, and Oxford Synthesizer Company OSCar. The band were also known for their use of samples, and played them off a Roland W30 and S760.

Ozric Tentacles are still going strong and pioneering a largely instrumental and synth-heavy variant of space rock.

The Electronics of Spacemen 3 and Sonic Boom

Where Ozric Tentacles expanded the idea of what space rock could be for the 1980s, Spacemen 3 refined it to a laser-guided point. Borrowing the oscillating noise of Hawkwind and combining it with the attitude of Nuggets-era '60s bands, the troglodytic riffs of The Stooges, the sweet soul of The Staples Singers, and the eternal minimalism of La Monte Young, co-founders Peter Kember (AKA Sonic Boom) and Jason Pierce (AKA J. Spaceman) launched the garage into outer space.

Minimalists if nothing else, Spacemen 3 didn't stray far from the core guitar/bass/drums configuration. However, they used a massive amount of effects to add the cosmic and psychedelic touch to their music. The book Spacemen 3 and the Birth of Spiritualized by Erik Morse features a list of gear used by the band (both musical and chemical).

While a lot of it mirrors the synthesizers listed on Kember's New Atlantis Studio webpage and are likely post-Spacemen acquisitions, much of it is closer to what the band fetishistically printed on its album sleeves. Key to the Spacemen 3 sound is the Vox Starstream guitar, which has a number of effects built-in. The repeater effect—basically a tremolo—is how they got the deep pulsing sound of "How Does It Feel."

Also important was the Vox Continental organ, which is all over their material and augmented by effects such as the Vox Tone Bender, Coloursound Wah, and Evans SE-810 Super Echo tape delay.

Spacemen 3 - Live In Germany 1989

After the band imploded at the turn of the '90s, Pierce stayed the traditionalist course with Spiritualized while Kember drifted further into the outer reaches of synthesizer oscillations under the names Spectrum and EAR. This newfound love affair with synths was kicked off by exploring—you guessed it—the EMS VCS3.

"With guitar, you had quite a limited palette," he told Red Bull Music Academy in 2013. "The VCS3 seemed to me to be a very elegant study in limited resources. I always liked very slow modulations, very slow changes, and most people didn't build that into their equipment. A lot of equipment never lets you get dangerous. I like stuff with the safety locks all taken off."

A glance at the gear list of his studio, New Atlantis, reveals a collection that is very much safety-lock free (and mouth-wateringly rare): a Serge modular, the subscription-only Synton Fenix modular, CES Industries ED-LAB 700 and ED-LAB 900, and even a Comdyna GP-6 analog computer.

Kember's unique brand of synthetic space psychedelia reached something of a peak with his 2020 album, All Things Being Equal, and its 2021 companion remix album, Almost Nothing Is Nearly Enough, released under the name Sonic Boom. It's unashamedly electronic, made up of older recordings made almost entirely with his modular gear.

"At one point, I was … thinking to just release them as they were," he explained in an interview with Vinyl Me Please in 2020. "I decided … I'd send it to some friends to see if anybody wanted to do any bits on it. I sent it to Tim Gane from Stereolab and he said, 'You should just release this as it is. You don't need to add anything.'"

Of course, he added vocals, some percussion, and digital synthesizers as well, of which he owns a lot, from a Casio CZ-101 through to a number of home-model Yamaha PSR units.

From the garage to the outer reaches of the synthetic stars: that's Sonic Boom.

The Synths and Effects of Moon Duo

Along with his own albums, Kember also does a lot of production and mixing work with other bands, including Panda Bear, MGMT, and Moon Duo, whose most recent album Stars Are the Light saw Sonic Boom sitting behind the mixing board. Moon Duo—comprised of Wooden Shjips' Erik Ripley Johnson on guitar and keyboardist Sanae Yamada—are co-pilots of a very modern space rock ship, one that melds traditional guitar with 21st century electronics.

Moon Duo - Live Performance, KEXP (2017)

Yamada's main keyboard is a Clavia Nord Electro 3, making heavy use of the onboard effects like tremolo, ring mod and rotary simulation; she then pairs it with a Fulltone OCD drive pedal. Her other main synths are a Sequential Prophet-6 and Korg MicroKorg, from which she coaxes all manner of deep-space-pinging bleeps and bloops. Moon Duo's songs are held down with synth bass, and this is achieved with a Moog Slim Phatty and Novation Bass Station II. Oddly enough, they don't seem to use a VCS 3 or any other EMS gear.

Through its half-decade-plus of history, space rock has continued to evolve, echoing and incorporating the trends and technology of the times. Space is ever-expanding—here's hoping space rock is too.

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