Analog Days comments

(Image from Amazon, used for review purposes only.)

The other book I’d gotten for my birthday was Trevor Pinch and Frank Trocco’s Analog Days (Harvard University Press, 2004), a relatively decent history of the development of analog synthesizers from the 60’s to the 70’s. At the time of publication, Pinch was Professor and Chairman of Science and Technology Studies at Cornell University and Trocco was Assistant Professor of Adult Baccalaureate Studies at Lesley University. The book is a pretty good mix of history and interview quotes from various key people (Robert Moog, a few people from his factory, several musicians, and others), but the authors adopt a “we’re researchers so we’re going to interpret for you how everything went down” attitude that I find distracting. The writing style is casual and “chummy”, and the interview quotes turn into tiny little sound bites used to support their “findings”, rather than the other way around. I mean, if you’ve got several hours of interviews with Moog, why not dedicate the entire chapter to that and then add a small amount of outside detail to establish context?

Anyway, it’s interesting to see what the authors chose to include (Leon Termen’s reason for coming to the U.S. to demo the theremin was to spy on America for Russia) and what to omit (Termen’s reason for starting development of the theremin was as a proximity detector for the Russian military). There’s a lot of focus on Don Buchla’s approach to synthesizers for experimental art purposes (the Buchla box used touch controllers because he thought that keyboards would restrict what people thought could be done in making music), but there’s absolutely no mention of Dave Smith, who created the Prophet 5 in 1978 and helped develop the MIDI standard.

(At least Jim Meddik has heard of Dave Smith’s Mopho…)

In the first 100 or so pages, the narrative switches between who the actors are, and what circuits they’d developed. Unfortunately, the explanations for what the circuits DO is pretty superficial. If you are already familiar with synths, the descriptions of an ADSR or an exponential voltage-controller oscillator (VCO) are obvious. If you’re new to the analog synth world, then they’re not going to make much sense. Fortunately, with the advent of the internet and wikipedia, it is possible to fill in by yourself most of the gaps in the book. The middle third goes into further detail on newer machine development, as with TONTO (and the Tonto Expanding Head Band), and interviews with performers like Suzanne Ciani. The last third talks about the bigger rock acts that became interested in synths (Stevie Wonder and Sun Ra are mentioned earlier, while Keith Emerson and David Borden of Mother Mallard are featured later). The later chapters focus on ARP, which had a short run competing against Moog in the 70’s, before going belly up because of management in-fighting; and EMS, the British company that came out with the VCS3 for school use, and which also went belly-up when their chief designer, David Cockerell, switched companies to design guitar effects pedals.

There are a lot of interesting little tidbits, like the Japanese company Roland getting its name when they were still making organs and the president deciding to page through an American phonebook to find something catchy and marketable. However, it isn’t until the authors get past all the talk of how psychedelic drugs influenced music in combination with Dave and his Buchla box at Acid Tests that the stories finally become more fascinating (to me). There’s a full page on how the Byrds started working with the Moog, and what happened the first time the Doors watched the Moog west coast sales rep (Paul Beaver, one half of Beaver and Krause) showing off the machine (Paul was throwing a bunch of patches together and creating various sounds when Jim Morrison told him to back up a couple sounds and replay something that resembled tinkling ice; Paul couldn’t do it because the synths at that time had really poor repeatability). In fact, the common thread connecting all of the synths at the beginning was that they were hard to use, hard to learn, didn’t really have user manuals, and if they didn’t break down outright, the oscillators would drift after a few minutes when the machines warmed up. ARP (created by Alan Robert Pearlman around 1967, after selling off Nexus Research, an early manufacturer of op amps) was designed from the beginning to be more stable for live stage performances, and competed heavily against the MiniMoog, which was Moog Company’s last-gasp move to save itself from bankruptcy. So, after years of being hard to use, synths started getting better in the 70’s, but that’s also when Moog was bought out and ARP folded. EMS never made in-roads into the U.S. markets, although it had been used by the BBC for sound effects on Doctor Who, and the Japanese synth companies didn’t start showing up in the U.S. until the some years later.

A lot of the book wastes time trying to set context for what influenced Buchla and Moog, specifically their settings on the east and west coasts, and how a lot of decisions were impacted by the 60’s drug culture. There are some artists that get highlighted along the way, but few of them are well-known now (Beaver and Krause, Mother Mallard, Suzanne Ciani, Pauline Oliveros). Keith Emerson and Wendy Carlos are the exceptions. (Just about 90% of the musicians listed in the index at the back of the book are name-dropped only.) Gershon Kingsley does get a couple pages for having worked with the Moog, but he’s mostly dismissed as producing “cheesy” songs, and his partner, famed electronica pioneer Jean-Jacques Perry, is almost completely ignored. Another waste of ink is the last 20 pages, the Conclusion that attempts to validate the authors’ arguments that synthesizers have some kind of mystical impact on music, which continues today in the form of House and Trance, while wrapping up with a “where are they now” on Bob Moog (1934-2005) and Don Buchla (1934-).

As mentioned above, there’s nothing on Dave Smith, who helped create the MIDI standard in 1983 after discussions with Tom Oberheim and Roland’s Ikutaro Kakehashi in 1981. Smith’s company, Sequential Circuits, came out with the Prophet 5 in 1977, the world’s first microprocessor-based instrument, as well as being the first programmable polyphonic synth. The Prophet 5 is mentioned once in the book, but didn’t even make it into the index. Tom Oberheim is mentioned briefly, though, as having worked at ARP. He left ARP to found his own company, which came out with the DS-2, one of the first digital sequencers, as well as the famed Oberheim 2-Voice and 4-Voice polyphonic synths. The authors spend very little time discussing these machines, though, and there’s nothing on the attempts to get machines from different manufacturers to talk to each other (i.e. – MIDI). There’s a little bit on Yamaha getting into the market, a mention of Roland as a manufacturer of organs, and Casio’s attempts to convince the U.S. government that synthesizers are machines, not musical instruments, in order to bypass the higher tariffs on imports (Bob Moog argued in front of the court on behalf of Casio’s lawsuit; they lost).

Overall, Analog Days is a frustrating book. It’s interesting to get a behind-the-scenes look at Emerson’s adoption of the Moog on stage, how the VCS3 was used to make Dalek sounds, and to get a bit of a view on the Buchla Box (which I’d never heard of). But there’s so much more that the authors chose to leave out to make room for their “thesis”, and the thesis isn’t that important. So, I can’t really recommend buying Analog Days, but if you can find it at the library you should definitely pick it up. I’m going to be running the discography, with youtube links in a separate blog entry. I will mention here that the authors chose the entries they did for the discography because various songs or albums were created using either the Moog, the MiniMoog, the ARP machines, the Buchla Box, TONTO, or the EMS VCS3.

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