This Is What Synths Made of Repurposed Telephone Switchboards Sound Like

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This Is What Synths Made of Repurposed Telephone Switchboards Sound Like

Lori Napoleon's switchboard synthesizers pay homage to the women pioneers of ambient electronic music.​

Anyone who has seen both a modular synthesizer and an old-fashioned telephone switchboard will notice the lines of intersecting wires and switches and patch bays on the two machines bear a striking resemblance.

Musician Lori Napoleon, however, was the first to realize that she could breathe new life into the obsolete switchboards of the 1900s by repurposing them as DIY modular synthesizers. She now creates electronic music on her homebrew instruments under the name Antenes, which I saw her perform Friday at Moogfest in Durham, North Carolina.

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Video by Evan Rodgers/Motherboard

Moogfest is a music technology festival named for Robert Moog, who created one of the first modular synthesizers, in 1963. (Don Buchla created a modular synth around the same time on the West Coast that was equally as influential, if not as commercially successful.) The modular synths at the time were cumbersome walls of cables and jacks, and though they were eventually replaced by portable analog machines and eventually digital synths, they're now back in vogue. (If you're not familiar with modular synthesis, check out the documentary I Dream of Wires and/or this explainer I wrote.)

Antenes was studying these early modulars at New York University when she came across an old telephone exchange switchboard one day and decided to explore where the antiquated apparatus equipment might overlap with music synthesis.

You can trace the lineage of analog synth design back to the early telecommunications equipment. Both are machines designed to link or "patch" together two different electrical signal sources, be that connecting two telephone transmissions or routing a voltage source through a circuit to manipulate its acoustic properties.

In the process of converting the old equipment into new instruments, Antenes maintains the original hardware—one of her synths still has the original operators' names on it—repurposes the knobs and switches, and adds new circuitry she gets online from DIY kits to create a sonic range.

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Lori Napoleon with her switchboard synthesizers at Moogfest. Photo: Evan Rodgers/Motherboard

Napoleon pantomiming some modifications to a TRS connector. Photo by Evan Rodgers/Motherboard

Antenes' production debut, The Track of a Storm vinyl EP, was released in 2015. The minimalist atmospheric music is reminiscent of early analog transmissions. Her website describes "transforming signal paths through which voices once travelled into sequences that burst with percussive energy and evolving textures."

Napoleon's work is a nod to the women who operated the early switchboards, as well as the early female synth pioneers who laid the foundation for the electronic musicians of the 20th century. In the 1960s, these women fought to have their groundbreaking work recognized in the male-dominated music and electronics industries, and their legacies still languish in relative obscurity today.

She noticed parallels between the operators and composers, such as the affection former operators described having for the instruments they used. The scale of the switchboards and early synths lent itself to forming a personal relationship with the machine, as if it is an extension of yourself.

"I was captivated by Bell Labs ads depicting early women telephone operators (both in image and text) as being on the cusp of a new technology—powerful enablers and steadfast workers and pioneers," Napoleon told me. "There was an instinct in me to link these images to early synth pioneers in their studios and the relationships they also had with their machines."

In her talk at Moogfest, Antenes said she likes to think of her work as paying homage to early female electronic music composers, and mentioned three in particular.

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"I am very inspired by the specific blend of the technical and the poetic that I have found in synth pioneers such as Delia Derbyshire, Suzanne Ciani and Daphne Oram," Napoleon said.

Daphne Oram is a British electronic composer who in 1957—seven years before the Moog modular came along—invented the Oramics technique, a new form of sound synthesis for electronic music. ("A technique which a former tutor told her she could not do, which she took as a challenge!" Napoleon said.)

Oram started experimenting with synthetic sound as early as 1948, while working as a music balancer for the BBC (a job not available to women until the labor shortage caused by WWII). However, it took the station nearly 10 years to show an interest in electronic music.

When the BBC did take note, the station was interested in the work but didn't want Oram to be a part of it. She persisted, however, and in 1956 a studio was created for her experimentation: the now-famous BBC Radiophonic Workshop. Oram was the first woman to direct an electronic music studio. She left the BBC soon after to pursue her personal goals to make music for its own ends.

Delia Derbyshire was also a composer at the BBC's Radiophonic Workshop, best known for creating the electronic rendering of a score written by Ron Grainer for the original 1963 theme music for Doctor Who. The iconic theme music was one of the first TV scores created entirely electronically, and Derbyshire's futuristic compositions inspired the field of electronic sound design for TV and radio. Yet (despite Grainer's urging) she wasn't even given co-composer credit for the Doctor Who theme when it originally aired.

Suzanne Ciani continued to break ground composing scores in the 1970s, this time for TV ads for major corporations, using the Buchla modular synthesizer. She was a master of sound effects, and most famously, reproduced the sound of a Coke bottle being opened to be used in Coca-Cola commercials. She was also the first woman to score a major film. In the 80s she started making her own new age and classical piano music. Ciani performed alongside other synth pioneers inspired by Don Buchla at Moogfest.

"All of this very strongly resonates with me because my synths are my outlet," Napoleon said. "The early pioneers invented their own techniques which sidestep any need to abide by particular established musical rules, and instead they marveled at the medium itself. To me I feel this opens up the world of material and physics as one's sonic playground."

"I do feel that I want to pay homage to all of them," she continued. "Not only the synth pioneers but the countless operator 'demoiselles' who were at the center of so many communications, so many voices, all connected through the circuits at their fingertips. Having access to these extensions (literally and figuratively) allowed them and allows us to speak, create, dream, and communicate with sound—whether it's electrical conveyance of the sound of human voices in the past, or the sound of an analog synth circuit, crossing its own pathways through the wires."

Antenes' nostalgic synthesizers are not only helping revive old technology that would otherwise be lost to time, but also the legacies of these female synth pioneers, that are too often overlooked and forgotten.