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The Future Past: 'I Dream Of Wires' and the (Re)Emergence of Modular Synths

A conversation with Jason Amm, producer of synthesizer documentary 'I Dream Of Wires.'

by Patrick Short
Aug 10 2015, 3:46pm

Something weird has been happening in the basements, home studios and occasionally on the stages of electronic musicians over the last few years. Spaghetti-like mounds of cables connect racks of small metal boxes that look like test equipment from a WWII submarine, but instead of the strident yet cloying pop sounds of modern EDM, these synthesists are more inclined to make odd bleeps, air-raid sirens and the occasional full-frequency brown note that could topple a suburban garage. In I Dream Of Wires, Director Robert Fantinatto has made the ultimate nerd-fest wet dream for anyone even remotely interested in modular synthesis, or the work of the surprising amount of famous or noteworthy musicians who share this obsession with legions of basement knob manipulators.

Trent Reznor and Alessandro Cortini of NIN in studio (from IDOW)

Big names like Trent Reznor, Deadmau5 and Martin Gore of Depeche Mode, along with early electronic pioneers like Morton Subotnick, who performed recently at the Berlin premiere of the film, share their individual connections with these instruments and offer unprecedented insight into their creative obsessions and quirks. IDOW is almost unique in that, especially in the 4-hour extended “hardcore edition,” the dozens of musicians profiled are visibly excited to talk shop, probably relieved at not being asked about inter-band personality clashes or living in Sharon Tate's old house for the umpteenth time, and the insights they offer up tend to be revealing (the ever humble Vince Clarke's admission that Depeche Mode's adoption of synths came after they realized their guitar playing was “atrocious”).

Bob Moog with an early Moog modular setup

Since their invention in the early 60s by tech-minded dreamers Bob Moog and Don Buchla, modular synths have been a source of much head-scratching, either by musicians or the music loving public at large. Essentially, they are “building blocks” of sound synthesis, some creating sound waves (sine, square, etc.) while others filtering, modulating and amplifying those waves, among about a thousand or so other functions. It's hard to explain the appeal to the layman, suffice to say that what's attracting many to these instruments is the ability to literally design their own instruments from the ground up, the only limitations being the depth of their wallet and threshold for meditative knob-twiddling. While everyone from Mick Jagger to the Monkees picked up a massive, astronomically expensive Moog modular in the early 60's, their impact wasn't felt on a large scale at the time, and at various points in recent history modular synths have been literally chucked in the trash, as they were overtaken by more consumer-friendly analog and digital units that were far less cumbersome. But in 2015, it's become clear that modular synths, especially those of the smaller, de facto “Eurorack” variety (affectionately called “Eurocrack” by the obsessed), is very much an expanding field, even if designers like Intellijel and Doepfer aren't likely to become household names. Noisey spoke with the film's producer Jason Amm, who makes music (including the documentary's soundtrack) as Solvent, about the Canadian release of IDOW, out on iTunes and DVD August 18, 2015 through Kinosmith.

Noisey: What sparked the idea for the documentary, how did it come together?
Jason Amm: It was started by Robert Fantinatto, who works doing commercial television and had some money left over after a job. He's done several independent movies as labours of love, the first being “Echoes of Forgotten Places”, a film about urban exploration that cost around $5000, something like that. I Dream Of Wires, which he'd called “Modular: The Documentary” to begin with, started as more of a niche documentary, to explore the kinds of people who used modular synths. At that point I think the biggest person he'd gotten was Morton Subotnick. Robert was interested in my music, he'd come over in the past to buy Solvent releases, and later he contacted me to let me know he was doing this documentary, and asked if I'd be into doing the interviews and soundtrack (OST available on Suction Records, Amm's record label).

The making of the soundtrack sounded challenging, you wrote and recorded most of it in a week?
That was the idea, but it's not like I finished the whole thing in a week. Basically, I didn't actually have any modular gear at the time, so Robert set me up in a studio space where I came up with most of the ideas, because I felt it was important to use modular synths to score a movie about them. At the time I was promoting a Martial Canterel show, so I suggested Robert talk to him (Sean McBride) as he uses modular synths (Serge '79 Series) live. I suggested a few other modular users to Robert, and it snowballed from there. After seeing what he'd put together with the early trailer, it was obvious that Robert wasn't blowing hot air, this was really going to be something.

Solvent (Jason Amm) manning a wall of Eurorack gear

The different philosophies of early modular synth designers is a recurring narrative in the film. Bob Moog was more on the practical side and his gear was adopted by pop stars, while Don Buchla was more into sound experimentation and pushing boundaries, wanting the future to “come faster”.
I think basically that the “West Coast” Don Buchla approach was seen in the 60's as very avant-garde with no practical application. To get people used to a synthesized sound period was too much of a mindfuck in general, as the public weren't used to experimental, non-guitar-centric music, especially without even a keyboard or Western scales being played. The way that Morton (Subotnick) describes it was that he was able to foresee that music making could be a solitary “man in a room” endeavour, he was visionary in the sense that he had the wherewithal to communicate what he wanted to Don Buchla, and use the new technologies that resulted. The reason the Buchla Music Easel was named that was for what Subotnik called “home studio painting”, stuff composed in his own home. Moog didn't necessarily think his synths had mass appeal, but when he saw musicians adopting his synths, like when Keith Emerson busted out the “O Lucky Man” solo, Moog saw that as a Jimmy Page moment, the potential was there for it to go more mainstream.

Morton Subotnik and the San Francisco Tape Centre (an early experimental collective that included Subotnick, Steve Reich and others) guys were a bit disdainful of Wendy Carlos's Switched On Bach and other similar early synth records, their attitude was “why repeat the past, why not experiment”.
The West Coast approach was pretty relevant, but also ahead of it's time, too much too soon for it to catch on in a meaningful way. It's totally mainstream now, you can listen to Britney Spears or Skrillex and hear songs based around atonal bleeps blasting out of clothing stores. This is partly why modular synths are becoming big now, people want sounds that are going to surprise them, it's crossed over. 20,000 people can stand in a field hearing a kick drum and some odd sounds and think “PARTY”.

Morton Subotnick performing live, 2012 (photo by Adam Kissick for NPR)

Part of it seems to be that technology has caught up with the ideas, in the John Foxx (Ultravox) segment he describes the old speakers not being able to even re-create the frequencies that synths were capable of, whereas now even most consumer headphones are pretty hi-fi.
It's not an obvious point, but it makes sense. Another major factor is the way modern recording has advanced, so much sound creation on modular synths is fleeting and hard to re-create live, there's no presets or patch saving. The way people make music and record with programs like Ableton lends itself to making libraries of sounds and sifting through hours of noodling to make a collage of sorts. I couldn't take advantage of modular synths without this technology.

Since technology is jumping ahead so fast in many respects, do you see a “next big sound” coming like dubstep did? Are Eurorack modular synths part of it?
I mean, I'm skeptical that there's going to be a “game-changer” in a genre sense, like drum n' bass being so fresh at the time, but if you asked someone in 1985, it's unlikely they could have predicted something like trip-hop. The thing is, when I use modular synths I feel like I'm hearing sounds which are quite new and unfamiliar to me, and it's been a long time since I've felt that. During the late 90's and early 2000s, the stuff that was considered “cutting edge” sound-wise would have been stuff like Max MSP, extreme computer programs and editing, but that didn't feel fresh to me and in fact inspired me to revisit more analog sounds that I felt had gotten lost along the way. In the 60's, bands like Silver Apples were using similar modular gear to what's available today, but it's almost like the VHS vs. BETA war, those sounds just didn't catch on. Also, the thing with the first wave of punk, it was based on older rock music, but the attitude was “all that bellbottoms and wizard shit was bumming me out, here's some music that rocks again!” It's hard to say what's coming next.

Personally, watching IDOW it was really fun to see artists whose music I've been a fan of for quite a while, like Vince Clarke (Depeche Mode, Yazoo, Erasure) and Trent Reznor, whose music as Nine Inch Nails or otherwise has changed drastically in the last few years as he almost exclusively uses modular synths.
The reason I think we got so much great material is that it was refreshing for these guys to talk synth nerd stuff, I basically went into the interviews and winged it and everyone was enthusiastic to have an opportunity to discuss gear, as opposed to, say, lyrical content, questions they've been asked a million times. And for a lot of them, in the 80's and 90's gear was quite a lot more cumbersome and difficult to sync, so many of them were eager to follow technology as it made things more convenient, with MIDI and later with software. Chris Carter (Throbbing Gristle, Chris and Cosey), for example, ended up selling every piece of hardware he owned in favour of using software synths to make music. In theory, computers should be the ultimate solution, they're compact, convenient, stay in tune...but there are very few people who make a move from hardware to software and find it enjoyable, the tactile, hands-on approach seems to be intrinsic to making music, and ultimately more fun. Many of the imperfections of physical gear, even weird crackles and cable noise can be exploited and even turned to a song's unexpected hook. There's an apocryphal story about Brian Eno holding onto a broken EMS VCS synth that he refused to get repaired because he liked and was used to the weirdness of it.

Skinny Puppy's cEvin Key and assistant (from IDOW)

There seems to be people who view modular synths as akin to video games or model trains as a hobby, it's easy to go on youtube and find modular synth basement videos with reams of trash-talk in the comments, like “write a song, nerd” type stuff.
We interviewed people whose apartments were crammed with enough rare or expensive modules to pay for a house, it's all about how people prioritize their lives. For me, I have two main pursuits when I use modular is to make sure I incorporate them in my music, the other is to perform a function similar to what video games do in other people's lives. I just want to sit down in front of something, veg out, and be sucked into a vortex of escapism. I'll press “record” in case something amazing happens, but if I have spare time I'll zone out in front of the modular, and it's akin to a drug experience for me. Lots of modular synth users don't use them to make music, and sure, you're not producing anything to put out in the world, but it's an abstract creative process, and just because you buy an instrument doesn't mean you owe it to the world to make music, really.

I often find myself wishing there were less bands, frankly.
It's kind of refreshing to see people making sounds for the joy of sound itself, even if the audience is small. On the instrument side, Daniel Miller (Mute Records founder) said in our interview that the ideas and modules being manufactured reminded him of the early days of Rough Trade and other independent record labels, where if you wanted a record pressed, you'd just go press it yourself, and it turned out that there was an audience for a 7” like Warm Leatherette. Bigger instrument makers or labels might not consider more “niche” records or gear, but you can design a module and likely find an audience of similarly inclined people. There's an explosion of DIY ideas right now, where a designer can design a module that sounds like, say, 8-bit video games, and think “100 or so people will find this worthwhile, because I do”, And that's really what it's all about.

Partick Short is a synth-pop artist living in Toronto - @KindestCuts