I mentioned earlier on in this experiment that I’ve been guilty of ignoring the keyboard of the Buchla Music Easel primarily because I’m just not a keyboard player at all and don’t know what to do with it. I can change and Octave here or there but when it comes to playing notes that actually sound good next to each other I’m way out of my league there. Tonight I sort of stumbled into having a really long portamento (which is sort of sliding from one note into the other rather than popping) running through a lot of reverb (Strymon Blue Sky) and I ended up playing notes for a while because it was just sounding so ethereal and spooky in all the right ways. I didn’t have enough time to come up with anything that I could repeat, but I spent some time exploring it and my mind is racing at the possibilities. It was almost theremin like at parts, which was kind of exciting and haunting all at once. This month so far has really helped me get to know this instrument so much better, but at the same time (as the best things always do) it’s shown me how very little I know about it and how much deeper I can go.
When I pick up my guitar and hit a note I’m pretty certain what it’s going to sound like. The G chord I play today will sound the same as the one I play next week, or next year. Sure I can fuck with the settings on pedals but that’s almost post processing. The guitar sounds the way it does. With the Buchla Music Easel that isn’t such a sure thing. The slightest variation in a slider position or variance in tempo and everything sounds different. Take the patch here as an example. I was really enjoying where part of this was heading but feeling a little stuck on another part. I wanted to try something out but it would require undoing everything here. But not wanting to lose what I had I took a photo that I assumed I could reference later and try to reconstruct it. That didn’t work out for me. The thing I wanted to try out didn’t sound right, so I pulled out this photo as reference and tried to recreate what I had earlier and but just can’t get there. Switches and knobs seem to be in order but the oscillators sons totally different. It will require more tweaking to get back to where I started, but that will have to wait until tomorrow.
I mentioned earlier that one of the amazing and frustrating things about the Buchla Music Easel is it’s limitations. By giving you a limited set of options it forces you to think of creative ways to do things and saves you from the paradox of choice that you can run into on a larger modular system where you have so many things you can do that you can’t decide on any of them. This is freeing and fantastically exciting to see how many different ways you can mix the same limited pieces. That said, occasionally there is something you want to do and you just can’t. You can trigger the sequencer, envelope generator and the pulser with the keyboard, the sequencer and env gen with the pulser, the env gen and pulser with the sequencer but you can’t use the envelope generator to trigger anything. On my Make Noise system I’m always using the EOC (end of cycle) on Maths to trigger things and I’m dying to do something similar on the Easel. Perhaps this is something I can unlock with program cards or expansion cards or something but that doesn’t help me right here right now where I really want the sequencer to step only once the env gen has completed a cycle.
Being a weird old electronic analog instrument that uses touch capacity as an input method the Buchla Music Easel is known to have the occasional grounding issues. I knew this before I got it and in the US mine seemed considerably less glitchy than other people’s. The tell tale sign of growing trouble is when you touch one key and it starts playing several, almost arpeggiating between them at times. When I moved to Tokyo the weirdness began right away. One thing to note is that Japan 100V with 2 prong plugs and the US is 120V with 3 prong plugs so some translation issues are to be expected. Unfortunately the most common suggestion to solve music easel grounding issues is to use a little adapter and turn the 3 prongs into 2. Since I’m in Japan and that’s a given, no dice. The next option is to connected it to the metal on another piece of grounded equipment via the ground jack on the side, but again since all the stuff here is similarly ground, that also made no difference for me. I finally found something g that worked though. I got a really long banana cable and attached one end to the ground port on the easel and tucked the other end into my waist and with the metal top making skin contact. This worked immediately. I guess adding myself to the circuit really helps when touching those contact pads. This was important for me because the new piece I’m working on right now needs to be slooooow and being able to key in the note changes and tempo is interesting.
I remarked earlier today that there was something magical feeling about turning off the lights, putting on headphones and just watching the synths do their thing. It feels like a mad scientist’s wonderland, an LED powered fortress of solitude. Watching the blinking and pulsing this morning was thinking about where this whole series was headed and about where I’d expected it to lead and how the way things play out is always different than you expect, and the people that can enjoy that journey are very different at the core than those who get stressed when plans don’t play out to the letter. I like a little bit of chaos and a little bit of unknown. I know a general direction but not an exact path. My friend Joi Ito says “compasses over maps” and I think that is a good mantra both in life and with these unwieldy yet elegant instruments. Have an idea where you want to go but let the path find its own way to get there. Here my Buchla Music Easel and my Make Noise Shared System are playing beautifully together but aren’t synced in anyway. I’m going to pull a 20-30 minute track out of this patch sometime this weekend I hope, I haven’t had the chance though I’ve been noodling on it for days. I’m trying to decide if it needs or would benefit from tape loops of Tokyo sounds, kind of making it an ode to my first 6 months of living here. Guess we’ll find out when we get to that bridge…
I spent a lot of today thinking about a composition and how I wanted it to work, and when I finally had a few minutes to play with knobs and cables I just couldn’t get it there. I got close, and ended up somewhere that wasn’t at all bad, but wasn’t the thing I had in my head going into it. The Buchla Music Easel does that I lot l find, it gives you some thing, just not what you’d necessarily expected. Speaking of expectations there is another tweakable thing that I always think to explore but just never have. The 3 CV outs from the keyboard module correspond to the 3 CV ins above them, but they don’t have to. They can be rerouted and hijacked in any number of ways. Send the sequencer CV to the pressure CVIN and simulate keystrokes maybe? Turn a pulse into a gate? So many options.
Most of what I’ve been talking about and thinking about is the CV and sliders but I he entire other half of the Buchla Music Easel is a touch plate keyboard. Not being a keyboard player myself I’ve been hesitant to dive in too much to this module, defaulting to the cables and knobs I’m more comfortable with, and honestly I still have so much to learn with that focusing on it not a problem. But this half of the instrument is not just an afterthought. Currently, I use it for changing octaves (or presets) of one or the oscillators and almost nothing else so I know I’m barely scratching the surface of what it’s capable of. The touch plates themselves are quite expressive and I’ve seen people do amazing things with it, but again with the sleepy drones that I tend to do a lot of the keyboarding or arpeggios don’t immediately fit in my brain when I’m thinking of compositions. I think the most natural thing I could start exploring would be the pressure CV out which I could use to trigger an envelope, maybe the more contact I have the longer the sustain would be, with fixed attack and decays. That sounds interesting in fact. I think I’ll try to figure out how to do it.
I don’t have this Buchla Music Easel aux expansion card (which is why you are getting this sweet screenshot) but I like the idea of it. I’ve mentioned already that one of the lures to the Easel is it’s limited options which force creativity and lead you into unexpected places. I find that limitation to be equal parts thrilling and frustrating. Thrilling because if you know me then you know my pull towards simplicity anywhere I can find it, and frustrating because sometimes I really just want it to do something and can’t figure out or can’t see the method to make it happen. This aux card adds and extra oscillator which is the thing I find myself wanting more than anything. It does other things too, but that’s what I’m most interested in. I’ve never seen one in person and BEMI isn’t selling them directly anymore and their list of distributors who sell them doesn’t seem to have anyone with them in stock, ever. Maybe with the purchase of BEMI by Buchla Music that just happened they will be available again. I think it’s a great idea and the perfect aesthetic match is a nice touch too.
(Here’s Todd Barton’s video manual for the card)