January Buchla Project: Day 9 – Triggers

Early on Today I had one of those realizations of things I already knew in one context but hadn’t considered in another. When I think of CV, I think of quantized or gates, of tones and pulses. Of course I know that any wave with enough of a peak can also be a pulse, but That didn’t really click for me until I was trying out a patch on my eurorack system and used a triangle as a clock. When I did this I had a huge “Oh!!! I can do that on the Buchla Music Easel too!!” moment. Of course as luck would have it I was running out the door when I realized that and didn’t get to try it out until hours later but of course it worked perfectly. Using the Mod CV out I was able to send a triangle wave from the Mod Oscillator to the CV in on the mixer for the Complex Oscillator and it worked. Now I have to think about how to utilize this better, and how suddenly having only one voice changes things, but it’s certainly a new field of options I hadn’t considered.

Music Easel folks, if you have any suggestions where I should run with that, please don’t hesitate to post them.

January Buchla Project: Day 6-8 videos and tuning

Day 6 & 7 in my Buchla music easel project were videos of an atmospheric set up doing its thing. I had a really long pulse driving the sequencer which is was to 5 steps, but only one of which is sending a pulse to trigger the envelope generator which has a really long attack and decay. A subtle pattern is running on the sequencer to manage the pitch of the complex oscillator, mod osc is keyboardable should I feel like it. The easel is then running into my Retro Mechanical Labs JnH distortion then into a totally cranked Strymon Blue Sky. I’ve had this patch just running for the last hour or so.

Day 8. I tuned my Music Easel today. I’ve never done that before and many Easel owners I’ve spoken to haven’t either. I guess is assumed it would ship from BEMI all set and ready, and I don’t know if it gets out of time by moving it or anything but it was definitely off and I don’t know how well I did but I tried. You can tune it by adjusting the little trim pots on the complex and modulation oscillators, watch Todd Barton’s video on YouTube for the specifics though I can’t tune by ear so I used an iPhone app. In fact it made me wonder about my other synths and if I can/should tune them, though I don’t know how either.

January Buchla Project: Day 5 – Program Cards

I recall a conversation in the mid 90’s with a band I was working with who had just come back from the studio, their first time recording with Protools. The guitarist pointed out that while the tracks sounded amazing, because they were able to find the perfect note and then sub that in any time it was used in the song, he also felt that they lost something because they were too perfect, and didn’t have that human hand in there.

That’s one of the things that attracted me to analog synthesizers, besides not really being able to play anything else, but the ability to cast away the expectation of perfect recall. Ideas are transient, and even if you find something you love you better record it because it’s never going to be exactly the same. The ability to play it out a little differently each time allowed me to have more fun with it.

Jump back to the early 1970’s when the Buchla Music Easel was being designed, Don Buchla wanted to have some kind of preset ability to help a musician get where they needed to go quicker during a performance. So he designed in these program cards. If you think of a live situation, having to pull all patch cables and reset each slider and switch to go from one track to another might be problematic, but being able to swap in a card that did a lot of it for you would go a lot quicker. The way these work, is each through hole represents something in the synth, and you’d solder in resisters between the points to build out different patches. A 10k resister would be a different slider position than a 100k resister soldered to the same spots. It also allowed some controls that weren’t able to fit on the Music Easel panel.

I’ve got a stack of these program boards that I keep meaning to mess with, and haven’t ever gotten around to. I feel like I want to understand the instrument better on it’s own before I dive off that cliff.

January Buchla Project: Day 4 – Background

So I’m not intending for this project to be a history lesson so much a forcing mechanism for myself to focus on something and see where it leads. Today I only spent a little time with the easel and that time was more confusing than enlightening so I thought I’d share something I did learn history wise in the last few days. I mentioned that I have one of the “reissue” Music Easels and some of the differences between the new ones and the older ones. When I hear of a “reissue” I tend to think of something that was released and then eventually production stopped and later on someone went back and revisited it. This is what I assumed happened here though I didn’t really understand the scope of the earlier production. As it turns out, only 13 of the original Music Easels were ever made. And of those, each one was made by hand. I spoke with someone today who has seen and worked on 3 of those, and noted that the circuitry on each of the 3 he saw was different, which suggests that of the 13 originals, there are at the very least 3 different versions, though in all likelihood each one was probably a little different. Personally, as someone who has built and released hardware and products, I wouldn’t call that a release. I’d call that a collection of proof of concept prototypes. Or if we assume that 10 of them were the same and the 3 that were observed were the oddballs, I’d still call that a small run not an actually produced unit. But that’s just me. Anyway, that’s only important when you start thinking about differences between “original” and “reissue” without considering the differences between each of the “originals” and what that even constitutes. There are also a handful of unauthorized clones that were produced by various people in the inter-period between when the original idea was shelved and the new one was announced. Unknown numbers and sources, but for sure more than 13. So more knock offs than originals. Anyway… In my BEMI easel (that I have) is the first authorized, produced version of this idea. And kind of shows how special it is.

But that’s just me.

The video above is an album (that I love) by Alessandro Cortini that was composed and performed entirely on one of the original Music Easels (possibly the first one ever made?), and was absolutely the thing that pushed me to get one. In the few years I’ve had the easel I’ve ever been able to make anything with it that sounds nearly this beautiful.

January Buchla Project: Day 3 – The Warm Up

Many analog instruments need to warm up before you can use them, anything with tubes for example needs to get cooking before it really does its thing. The Buchla Music Easel does not have tubes but it does need to warm up. I’ve heard anywhere from 5-20 minutes of just running before it’s in operating range. In practice I’ve never waited that long. Sometimes I wait a few minutes, sometimes I just dive in. This leads to confusion and chaos, as I learned yesterday. The sound of the oscillators drastically changes during that warm up period, I didn’t realize just how much they changed and how important that warm up period is.

Now I do.

January Buchla Project: Day 2 – Complex Oscillator variation

Today’s exploration has me looking backwards instead of forwards. The Buchla Music Easel is essentially two modules perfectly paired for performances and everything you could need in an “all in one” suitcase synth. The 208 module being the “brains” and 218 module as the controller. That’s overly simplified but gives you the main idea. It was originally released in 1973 and reissued a few years ago, I have the newer model.

The new model was promised to be “as close as possible” to the original with some performance improvements, most notably in the 218 (keyboard) module which has 4 presets instead of the original 3, and better layout of CV jacks. The 208 module changes seemed entirely cosmetic to me until some troubleshooting today led me to learn that the original complex oscillator offered a spike tooth wave rather than the sawtooth option on the new model. This also seems to be an improvement as the spike was fairly shrill on it’s own, where as the sawtooth can be quite beautiful. I’ve looked at these panels many times and never noticed that before. So that’s what I learned today.

Original 1973

Modern BEMI reissue

January Buchla Project: Day 1


I decided that I’m going to spend January focusing on my Buchla Music Easel. I lusted after this for so long and when I finally got it I was neck deep in other things and didn’t spend the time with it I should have. Even now, 2 or so years later I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface and want to really get the feel for this instrument.

At Tara’s suggestion I’m going to try and post one thing a day about it, which means at the very least a month from now I’ll know 31 things about it, but ideally those will be things I’ve learned as well. Today I went back and watched Todd Barton‘s excellent MacProVideo series on the easel and I don’t know how I missed this before – with the slower ambient stuff I do I often use the full 10 second pulse CV from the pulser, but I somehow missed that the Envelope Generator could self cycle as well, giving the potential for a 30 second CV (10 attack, 10 sustain, 10 decay). This seems silly but I was really excited and my head started racing with all the things I might be able to do with that kind of CV time.

I’m posting this series on Instagram first, though I don’t think I’ll keep it there, so I’m cross posting here to my own blog as well for archival purposes. Hopefully this is interesting for some of you.

Japan Stories: The ER

There is a stretch of sidewalk between the train station and my house that is a bit precarious. It’s narrower than usual, it has a telephone pole right in the middle of it and on the side closest to the building it passes in front of it runs right into a tiled 45 degree slope downward that is easily double the width of the sidewalk. Often, if there is anyone else on the sidewalk, rather than struggle with the lack of space, I’ll just walk over onto the tiled slope and skip past them without issue. Of course I’ve always done this while wearing the shoes I wear all the time.

The other day it was cold and raining pretty hard when we went out and I decided to wear my snow boots because they are more waterproof and also pretty warm. I’ve never worn these in a non-snowy situation and I learned quickly that the grip on their soles is lacking. It works great in snow, not so great on wet slippery pavement. All day long I was slipping and skidding, it was not fun. Walking home at the end of the day I was tired and anxious to be off the streets when I passed this narrow spot in the sidewalk which of course had other people on it. I thoughtlessly stepped off to the side like I had a hundred times previously without remembering that this slope was tile and that I’d been slipping in my boots all day. And I went down instantly, fast and hard. My back felt tweaked, my hip clearly took a direct hit. I felt really old right away. I also immediately noticed that my right hand was completely numb and had a big abrasion along the thumb part of my palm – as that seemed to have taken the brunt of my fall when I smacked it hard into the curb. I was pretty annoyed.

I got back up and as I continued towards my house I realized that my hand wasn’t getting any feeling back and felt very ghostly when I tried to squeeze it. I could squeeze it which was great, but the numbness was lasting much longer than it should have. I was also starting to feel a little nauseous. Having broken bones before, I wasn’t excited about this particular combo. I got home and put ice on my hand and immediately started googling broken thumbs. Over the next two hours while the numbness faded and the pain kicked in I read that the symptoms of a broken thumb were very near when I was currently experiencing. That and my hand had progressed to a solid 8 on a 1 to 10 pain scale. I also read that the longer you wait before getting medical assistance with a broken thumb the more likely you’ll have lifelong side effects of it, so I decided I should go see a doctor. And because no emergency in my family ever happens during weekday business hours, it was not 8pm on a Sunday and the ER was my only real option.

I’ve never been to a doctor of any kind in Japan and was a bit apprehensive about the whole thing, though I’d been looking forward to the first time I got to use my fancy new National Health Insurance card. Heath care is socialized here in Japan and I pay $300 annually for my entire family to be a part of it. Compared against the $1000 a month we used to pay in the USA this was already an improvement but how would it work in practice? I was about to find out.

I got to the hospital and the check in receptionist spoke perfect english which was a relief as I didn’t know what to expect. The nurse he handed me off to didn’t speak a word of english though, and we had to communicate via a live translator who she called and we kept passing a phone back and forth. Apparently “I fell and I think I broke my thumb” is a new one in Japan and they kept asking me about my head, if I’d passed out today before falling or another day recently, or had been drinking. I finally conveyed to them that I didn’t hit my head, hadn’t been drinking and didn’t pass out, I simply slipped on some slippery tiles. They seemed disappointed. What a boring injury.

I was told that I’d see the specialist in about 30 minutes and about 10 minutes later he called for me. He spoke better english and went over the details with me. After looking at my now swollen hand and seeing where it hurt me when he moved it he confirmed that it was acting very much like a break, but he’d need x-rays to confirm the idea. I agreed and was whisked off to the x-ray room, which was right around the corner. When I’ve gotten x-rays in the US they cover me with lead aprons and the doctors hide behind several walls and layers of thick glass. Here, the doctor lined things up and just reached out of the room with one hand to fire the x-ray. It was so casual. The x-rays contradicted our suspicions and showed no break. This was good news. My hand was really killing me by this point though. The doc told me to keep it rested, put some ice on it and take these pain pills, then sent me home. I walked back in the door almost exactly 1 and a half hours after leaving. I also got hit with a $20 bill when leaving the hospital, a fee they were very apologetic about. There won’t be any more fees, that was the entire cost of this endeavor.

A few days later and the swelling has gone down and my hand feels much better, but I’m still amazed at how much easier the ER experience was here than eery time I’ve ever gone in the US. For comparison, even with insurance in the US, the last time I went to the ER I was there for 6 hours and walked away with “nothing wrong!” and a $5k bill that insurance didn’t help with at all because my deductible was around $10k. So, let’s just say this experience – all things considered – was pretty great.