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The Global Synthesizer Project Makes Crowdsourced Sound Art

For Moogfest, sound artist Yuri Suzuki and Moog Music’s Chris Howe built a global sampler that is also a sound art installation.

by DJ Pangburn
May 24 2016, 8:10pm

The Global Synthesizer Project installation at Moogfest. All images courtesy the artist, unless otherwise noted

Imagine tapping into every sound generated by musicians around the globe, and tweaking them all in real time on a single platform. People would effectively be able to play the world.

While sound artist Yuri Suzuki hasn’t exactly accomplished quite a feat, he conceptually comes pretty close with his Global Synthesizer Project, an interactive electronic instrument installation that allows users to synthesize “environmental sounds” from across the world. Created in collaboration with Moog Music, The Global Synthesizer Project debuted as an installation at this year’s Moogfest in Durham, North Carolina.

Yuri Suzuki twiddling knobs

Installed on a wall in the midst of Moog’s Pop-Up Shop Factory, the synthesizer is comprised of dozens of modules from Moog and other module makers, and laid out in an approximation of the global map. The cabinet is beautifully crafted in wood, containing the modules and several speakers. The various modules, aglow with light and humming with sound, are connected via patch cables, evoking—whether Suzuki realizes it or not—the network of undersea cables that constitutes the Internet’s circulatory system.

All told, the sampler features 80 samples from 30 regions as diverse as Guinea-Bissau, Antarctica, and everywhere in between. Tweak a sound in South Africa or India, and field recordings from these countries (and nearby regions) are triggered, which users can then alter with analog oscillators, filters, LFOs, and other sound modifiers.

Suzuki tells The Creators Project that he’d long wanted to use his collection of sounds from around the world for a sound art installation. He’d attempted something conceptually similar with Sound of the Earth, a spherical record where the grooves represent the outlines of geographic land masses. As the needle passes over specific geographic regions, it plays recordings Suzuki had collected from across the dlobe, from traditional folk music to national anthems and several other field recordings.

But for The Global Synthesizer Project, Suzuki wanted to pair samples with modular synthesis. After approaching the Moog Music team at Moogfest 2014, Suzuki and Moog project engineer Chris Howe embarked on a mission to fuse the two distinct approaches to sound. The two jettisoned the modular synthesizer’s oscillator (a waveform generator that produces sounds), opting instead to make the field recordings fulfill an oscillator’s traditional role. They also decided to crowd-source the sounds instead of rely on Suzuki’s sample library.  

Howe tells The Creators Project that the sampler controls the start and stop time of the sample, with a reverse function if the stop time comes before the start time. An algorithm allows for time-stretching, which gives the user control over pitch and rate by way of control voltage. The sampler also has a special feature called Location Control, which can create a variety of timbres out of multiple samples housed in four simultaneous sample banks.

“The reverb uses an algorithm known as convolution, which allows us to take impulse responses from real spaces and apply the reverberant qualities of that space to another incoming signal,” Howe explains. “These impulses were also crowdsourced and came from 15 major regions.”

Originally, Suzuki had hoped to have some electronic artists craft elaborate studio recordings with The Global Synthesizer Project, but time didn’t permit it.

“We did two jam sessions at Moogfest—one with Yuka Honda from Cibo Matto and the other with Christoffer Berg (a.k.a., Hird),” Suzuki says. “And we’d love to tour the installation, so I’m approaching some museums and galleries about doing some sort of public interactive program.”

Suzuki says that whether he and Howe continue altering the modules (adding or subtracting units) depends on future opportunity. This, of course, would be conceptually interesting, as new sounds are always being added to the world. So why not The Global Synthesizer Project?

Click here to check out more of Yuri Suzuki’s work.

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