At an underground show in an artist’s residence-cum-venue in Hamilton, Ontario, musician Etienne Trudeau typed away manically on a keyboard next to a clunky, old-school computer. Nesting in the 80s era computer was a corporate-branded floppy disc called an SID card. The 1982 Commodore 64’s keyboard was rigged as its controller. A program turns it into a synth, and each key has a different function. “I looked like a complete freak,” Trudeau, member of Quebec City-based dream pop band Nimbes, said of the performance. “It was like playing with a toy live onstage.” “I love the look, the sound- it takes me back,” he told me. “It invokes an aesthetic nostalgia.”
Although the concept for synthesizers—an instrument that uses vibrating electric oscillators to make music— dates all the way back to the 20s and the theremin, the technology expanded in the 60s with inventors like Moog and then became mainstream thanks to Italian DJ Giorgio Moroder. Modern synthesizers were then designed to store certain pre-set sounds and sequences, a possibility that first emerged in the 80s with floppy discs, which were quickly replaced as storage technology improved. Soon, floppy discs started being used in synthesizers to hold certain pre-set sounds and sequences of keystrokes. However, since they can only hold a fraction of the data of a modern USB key, when technology progressed most musicians stopped using floppy-compatible synths in favour of more developed instruments or computer programs that emulated the same sounds. In the early 2000s, music enthusiasts created floppy drive emulators that allowed an SD card to take the place of the multiple floppy discs that were previously required to save an array of sounds and sequences. Since then, emulators have become an attractive choice for budding musicians because of their low cost, slightly faster ability to produce music on old synths, as well as their overall 90s aesthetic and particularly dreamy sounds.
All photos by Noelle Solange Didierjean
In a sense, floppy discs are the technical equivalent of neighbourhoods undergoing first-wave gentrification, offering character and the ability to experiment to artists—and the appeal of outdated technology is evident across Canada. Peter Venuto, the owner of a Montreal-based synth rental company, explained that synths from the 80s came out at “the emergence of the digital-synth age.” “People thought it would be way cooler to eliminate all these hands on knobs and have a very svelte, Blade Runner menu.” The contrast between the minimal, stripped-down face of the early 80s synth is striking compared to the synthesizers of previous decades that line one whole wall of Venuto’s loft in the Plateau, a neighbourhood known as the stomping grounds of Grimes and Arcade Fire. The most unusual synth is the Buchla 200e, an early 60s creation two feet high covered in knobs and dials in a psychedelic array of colours designed by a NASA engineer. Some floppy compatible synths are equipped with an inconspicuous little box that allows an SD card to take the floppy discs place. “This is a cool case of retro-futurism because […] enthusiasts were able to redress problematic aspects of earlier synths,” he said. The Ontario College of Art and Design graduate runs the aptly-named Synth Palace out of his combination studio and living space.
Isaac Latham, occasional member of Montreal-based Des Moines, bought his first synth online a few years ago and hasn’t looked back. “Kijiji facilitated weird little niches like this,” he told me. Similar to Venuto, Latham moved to Montreal after being priced out of the rapidly-gentrifying Toronto neighbourhood of Parkdale and a large part of the appeal of floppy discs for the 20-something musician is their low cost. “A lot of this gear is very cheap,” he told me. One example is an old sequencer he got off Kijiji for $60. A sequencer of equivalent quality made in this millennium would cost around $2000 today. The low cost subscribes to what Venuto calls the rise of a DIY culture in electronic music. “Before, something was expensive, you were afraid to blow it up.” Now, you can rig a synth with a microcontroller for less than $20, making it possible for the Kraftwerk fan in their basement to experiment. The redeeming qualities of floppy discs also go outside North American borders. From his home in Hamburg, Germany 20-year-old computer science student Yannick Richter spends his spare time manipulating disc drives.
“They have a unique sound everyone remembers and reminds you of classic chiptunes,” he told me by email. Richter has just under 10,000 subscribers on his YouTube channel dedicated to music made with floppy discs. He got into it in 2012 after seeing similar music online and started tinkering with floppy discs he got from his school network, which he was helping to manage at the time. In one video with over 5,000 views, he plays a jerky, robotic sounding rendition of the Back to the Future theme song using half a dozen floppy discs and a microcontroller. “It is also kind of a show,” he added. “It is amazing how everything moves and all drives together create a song.” Provencher has a similar fondness for his floppy-friendly synth, the Juno 106. “I love it!” he told me. “The programming is really weird, but it’s a really deep synth. It’s one of my favourites.” Even the branded floppies specific to the Commodore 64 are endearing to Nimbes frontman Trudeau. “They’re very complex and beautiful chips,” he said of the SID cards that allow the keyboard to act as the computer’s controller. “It’s an endemic and beautiful sound.” Nimbes’ other floppy-compatible synth of preference has its own advantages. “It has a really warm feel,” he said of the sound. Used with a sequencer, the machine “can be warm and soothing, but it can also be very cold and heartfelt. “It really gets to you.”
But while some embrace the resurgence of floppy disc synthesizers with open arms, some think the trend veers on ridiculous. “A musician should care more about the output of their music than the input,” said Filip Pietruszewski, Montreal-based guitar pedal vendor and musician. “Aesthetics should be second to sound.” Pietruszewski thinks the floppy-disc resurgence is part of a larger 80s and 90s fad, one he called “hilariously predictable.” New Brunswick-based musician Evan Matthews came into a floppy-compatible synth by chance. A friend gifted him the early 90s Yamaha SY77, a stripped down black machine with minimal interface. While Matthews admitted the instrument is still perfectly functional, it was a bitch to operate.“It’s a pretty hard-to-use synth,” he told me. “Every single variable you can control is hidden inside layers of menus titled in jargon.” The synth came with a binder three inches thick that the artist attempted to decipher. “It can make cool sounds, but it takes three minutes to change a single variable.” Matthews ended up trading the synth for a guitar.
On both sides of the spectrum, musicians were sceptical of floppy-based tech ever going mainstream. “Floppy discs won’t catch up to the popularity of cassettes,” Pietruszewski said assuredly. “They can’t hold more than 30 seconds of audio, so we won’t be seeing portable floppy-disc players anytime soon.” Provencher likewise maintains a healthy cynicism. “I kind of hope they do become more popular, but I don’t see it happening,” he told me. “Most people can’t play floppy-disc synths. It’s harder.” Venuto is slightly more optimistic. “For storing large sound files, it becomes impractical. But if you’re using it to record sequences, it can work.” “I have full respect for people who are inexplicably transported and have an indescribable fascination with three point five-inch floppies,” Venuto said, in reference to the fact that the information stored in entire box of floppy discs can now fit on a chip the size of your fingernail. But he thinks the digital revolution and 90s era tech can go hand in hand.
“I think the floppy is alive and well—it’s just called an SD card now,” he said with a grin.
Noelle Solange Didierjean is a writer based in Montreal. Follow her on Twitter.