It’s the sound of R2D2 in Star Wars, the Tardis in Doctor Who, the transporter in Star Trek and the original Cylons in Battlestar Galactica. It’s the ominous tension-inducing pulse in Pink Floyd’s “On the Run,” the squiggly joyful noise at the start of The Who’s “Baba O’Riley,” and the epic supernovae that punctuate Rush’s “Tom Sawyer.”
“It” is the sound of the analog synthesizer, a machine originally designed to mimic acoustic instruments but whose unique timbres -- created by routing electronically-generated tones through filters and signal processors -- inspire a unique aural space. And though they've become rare instruments, the various synthesizers responsible for the above sounds can be found alongside many others at the East Bay-based Vintage Synthesizer Museum, just off of San Pablo Ave. in Emeryville.
Lance Hill is the affable 40-something curator of the Museum, whose boyish hipster looks shave a good decade off of that number. By appointment, he makes his showroom available to all interested, expert and novice alike. For the former, he offers his synthesizers for in-house rental (the museum's synths have graced records by Dan the Automator, Neurosis, Blackalicious and others). For the latter, he offers a three-day crash course that leaves one with enough basic facility in audio synthesis to create their own compositions -- or, at the very least, the ability to make some cool robot noises.
Once the exclusive province of engineers and programmers, synthesizers have evolved to become much easier to use and manipulate since their earliest iterations. The modular synthesizer was an imposing array of wires, plugs, and knobs that began sharing real estate with piano-style keyboards, thus making the device more accessible (not at all dissimilar to the addition of a typewriter keyboard to the first personal computers). But just like computers, synthesizers don’t do anything unless told to. They're only as good as their users' deft way with the sliders and knobs, marking the difference between an artful aural sculpture or total garbage.
Boot up one of Hill’s synthesizers and see for yourself: some are so opaque in their functionality, they’ll yield nary a peep no matter how hard you button-mash. Grumble to Hill, though, and he’ll show that you were a just few knob-twists away from laser guns.
A few notable synths at Hill's museum include:
The ARP 2600. Fifty-odd knobs and sliders dominate this war-torn steel beast. But with a little coaxing, one can recreate the voice of R2D2 from the original Star Wars with surprising accuracy. The challenge comes in tweaking the knobs just so to express the range of emotions that we expect from the little robot. Watch original Star Wars sound designer Ben Burtt explain how he mixed the human and the synthetic to create that distinctive sound:
The Moog Taurus. This foot-triggered synthesizer uses electric organ-style pedals to produce its thick bass magic. Popularized by the Rush hit “Tom Sawyer,” bassist Geddy Lee deployed the Taurus to fatten their trio sound while playing live. Check out the original video for “Tom Sawyer” and spy Lee tap dancing on his Taurus:
The EMS Vocoder. A synthesizer designed to distort and bedazzle vocals, the EMS is a console about the size of a stereo receiver connected to a microphone; it's often mistakenly credited as the source of Autotuned vocals. In addition to countless disco songs, the vocoder is the basis for the voice of the Cylons on the original Battlestar Galactica:
A younger generation might consider Hill’s museum an aberration in the Bay Area, but the region's history with the analog synthesizer runs deep. In fact, one of the earliest innovators of the synthesizer is Berkeley-based Don Buchla, who, along with the late Robert Moog, is popularly considered the father of the modern synthesizer. Whereas Buchla is more often associated with the aforementioned unwieldy arrays of wires and circuits known as the modular synthesizer, Moog popularized and commercialized the synthesizer with accessible, keyboard-based designs. Buchla’s instruments are less prominent in pop culture, but Nine Inch Nails’ Alessandro Cortini happens to tinker with one in the video for “The Hand That Feeds”:
Original units designed by both Moog and Buchla fetch tens of thousands of dollars on the resale market, despite the fact that both Buchla and Moog’s manufacturers have issued reproductions of their original machines. But at the Vintage Synthesizer Museum, one hardly needs a dime to lay hands on these lovely old beasts.
Visits and classes can be booked through the Vintage Synthesizer Museum’s Facebook page.