I grew up like many people right along the border of North York and Scarborough, in a very average household in a very average suburb. My father, an accountant, always had classical radio on. Occasionally he’d dust off his LP’s and would introduce me to The Beatles or Neil Young — very influential, but surface level stuff. I think the only Neil LP I heard until my teens was Harvest.
I had to find a lot of music on my own. Everything I initially gravitated towards were guitar-based rock bands. They only things with keyboards I ever saw were the pianos on classical record sleeves or the small boat piano my grandmother had. She would occasionally play old hymns on it to quiet my brothers and I down when we were being rambunctious shit-disturbers.
Suffice to say, I grew up not knowing anything about the possibilities of synthesis. I got to high school and became interested in what I considered to be “intelligent” rock bands. I saw the magic in what they were doing and just assumed it was all guitars through fancy effect pedals. When I eventually started playing guitar seriously, I also started experimenting with effects. I was trying to figure out how to create new and exciting textures, all the while growing ever-increasingly dissatisfied that I couldn’t really achieve what I was hearing in my head.
I got a job at a used music gear shop when I was 19 and through that was asked to play in a local band I really liked whose first record was a mix between Sonic Youth and Pavement. A few years passed after that album was released and their follow-up that had some synth on it. They needed new members to fill out the live show, so I signed up to play guitar with them and got the gig through my co-worker who was also apart of the band. I quickly found out they were the kind of band where each song everyone would switch instruments. It was very of the time.
So, it was expected of me to play some keyboards. I could physically do so, having taught myself some basic piano chops a few years prior, but in terms of actually using and understanding synthesis, I had no idea. This is where my mind was blown open. They had a Roland Juno 106. A super basic, one oscillator poly-synth that in my opinion was the perfect synthesizer to learn on for someone with no idea .
I figured if I couldn’t afford to buy what I wanted, I could learn to build it. DIY ’til I die.
This was also back at a time when you could find a 106 for a couple hundred bucks and they were literally everywhere. The store I worked in seemed to always have one in stock and it sat on the shelf for months. I spent more and more time becoming fascinated with them. Something clicked in me and I realized that all the effort I had been putting into manipulating guitar sounds into eerie, otherworldly tones could be done on synthesizers in far more creative and interesting ways. I was finally getting closer to the sounds I was hearing in my head.
I was hooked and started saving up to buy my first synth: a Roland Juno 60, the predecessor to the Juno 106. I started checking Craigslist and Kijiji multiple times a day, trying to find deals because I was poor and couldn’t afford anything new and the synths I started reading about hadn’t been in production in decades anyways. The only way I could find them was in the classifieds.
Eventually the modern modular synth boom happened in the Eurorack format, and I fell in love. But it was still an extremely pricey endeavour that I could never really afford. I started reading a bunch of books and took a college electronics course. I figured if I couldn’t afford to buy what I wanted, I could learn to build it. DIY ’til I die.
After my course—with the help of a few friends and constantly bugging people on internet message boards—I built my dream synth: a Buchla Music Easel. These are semi-modular synths with a non-traditional keyboard attached to it. They keyboard doesn’t have individually weighted keys like you’d normally see. It is made up of a large touch plate, divided into keys that allow you to play it like any old keyboard, but the touch plate is pressure sensitive which you can assign that to any parameter on the synth.
A huge part of why I dove so deep into synthesis in the first place were the artists I was being introduced to. Early on I saw synthesizers and just assumed they sounded like that St. Germain record you always hear in overly lit department stores. But now there was a whole world of interesting people pushing the boundaries of genre and technology and they were developing their craft. These are a few of the incredibly interesting people that heavily influenced me and the synthesizers they used.
Mort Garson — Black Mass Lucifer & Plantasia (Moog Modular)
This is now an obvious one, with Sacred Bones FINALLY re-issuing the Plantasia album this year, but in my mind, Black Mass Lucifer is still highly underrated. Mort was born in New Brunswick (!) in 1924 and eventually went to school for music in New York where he developed his musical chops. He worked as a composer and arranger, mainly working with piano originally, building his name and reputation. He did some arrangement work, including two Doris Day albums, and even had his work used as incidental music during the TV broadcasts of the Apollo 11 moon landing. He met Bob Moog while working on a suite based on the zodiac signs (The Zodiac: Cosmic Sounds) and was one of the first to have a Moog Modular system. A large, black, hulking wall of synth, and one of the first of it’s kind.
Plantasia is absolutely stunning. While a lot of the early electronic records are very experimental, with lots of textures, drones, and basic sequenced loops, Mort was an absolute master of melody. What he ended up with is this one-two punch of brand new, never heard before sounds, and incredibly dense but focused and memorable compositions. Oh, and did I mention it’s a concept record and meant to be played for plants? Because it is. And that rules.
Black Mass Lucifer isn’t as well-known, but is just as good and if I had to choose between the two I’d go with it, as it’s a little weirder and darker, while still holding on to a strong sense of melody and dynamics. I don’t think it’s available, but someone uploaded it in its entirety to YouTube. Punch that shit into the Goog, you’ll find it.
Laurie Spiegel — The Expanding Universe (Buchla & EML Modular Systems)
Less traditionally structured in terms of pop arrangement, The Expanding Universe is no less memorable. While our boy Mort had a fairly traditional path in terms of education, Laurie taught herself how to play music by ear, eventually teaching herself western music notation when she was 20. Also, even more badass was that she went to college through an early entrance program because she didn’t finish high school. Listen, I’m all for education, but there are so many obvious issues with the way the school system is structured. It’s generally set up in a “one-size-fits-all” system, where you have to follow a pathway that you potentially wouldn’t haven’t chosen. But that’s a longer conversation to be had at another time. Regardless, when I hear of extraordinary people creating their own paths, it always fills me with joy.
Eventually, Laurie went to Juilliard in 1969, where she got her MA in Music Composition. She developed an algorithm she called the GROOVE system to assist her in writing, and ultimately making my favourite of her albums: The Expanding Universe. The artwork for the reissue of the album is also incredible, featuring an interview on her on the front cover where she refuses to define and limit what she does. Put this on, read the interview, then question if the earth is flat or not, and if we’ll ever get outside the Milky Way.
Suzanne Ciani — Buchla Concerts 1975 (Buchla System)
Taken from two separate live performances and released in 2016, Buchla Concerts 1975 holds a very special place in my heart. I was given this LP from Graham Walsh of Holy Fuck as a gift upon completing my Buchla Music Easel build, and it’s just so good. Suzanne Ciani is another true pioneer in synthesis and has won a bunch of Grammys and other awards for her work in the field. Ciani, above anyone else in my mind, really is the master of the Buchla system. Buchla, if you aren’t familiar, started what’s known as “west-coast synthesis,” whereas most synthesizers we’re familiar with (Moog, Roland, Korg, etc…) tend to be in the “east-coast synthesis” camp. Basically, there’s more than one way to scramble an egg. Moving on…
Deservingly so, she also has a great documentary about her and loads of interviews to dig into. There’s an amazing video of her on Letterman where she has a vocoder and a Sequential Circuits Prophet 5 and blows Letterman’s mind. In addition to her work composing original music, she also has an amazing history of scoring TV shows and commercials. A ton of super iconic ad campaigns have been scored by her. Honestly, not much else I can say that hasn’t already been said. I feel like she’s one of the more known entities in this world, and again, it’s entirely due to how amazing and versatile her work is.
Wendy Carlos — Switched On Bach (Moog Modular)
This is maybe a bit too on the nose, but you really can’t talk about influential pioneers in synthesis without Wendy Carlos and Switched On Bach was just so monumentally important. In a lot of ways, it made people take notice of what synthesizers were capable of. In the early days of electronics and synthesizers, most of the music was very experimental and limited in scope. With Switched On Bach, Carlos recreated famous Bach compositions and showed everyone just how legit these instruments can be by flexing these new inventions to their full capacity. This was incredibly time-consuming, considering Wendy was recording to tape and using this new synthesizer that had many limitations.
Carlos grew up in a musical household, went to Brown for a degree in music and physics and went to Colombia where she received her MA in Music Composition. Colombia University had the first electronic music centre in the Unied States and Carlos became friends with Bob Moog, later helping develop the Moog Modular — arguably one of the more important inventions in music and pop culture ever.
It is also worth noting, that Wendy Carlos came out publicly as a trans woman after the success of Switched On Bach, which could not have been easy. Like, you have this incredibly brilliant and gifted person, who basically shone a light on electronic music as a real and “acceptable” form of music, after helping develop the Moog Modular, now coming out into the public world and declaring their identity. Today even still there is so much uninformed and awful hatred for anyone considered “different,” I cannot imagine how strong of a person you’d have to be at that time in 1968.
Carlos also did the score for 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Shining, as well as Tron. She also worked with Weird Al Yankovic on a satire album of Peter & The Wolf which is something I didn’t know until researching this article, and that fact blows my mind. With such a huge body of incredible work, I chose Switched On Bach just due to the incredible influence on music it had. There is basically an entire genre of “Switched On…” albums now, where people will take classic albums and “synth-ify” them as an ode to Wendy Carlos. It is also something I can put on with my dad and we can bond over it, and anything that different generations can share and bond over is special.
Lastly, it’s a hilarious fact that Wendy Carlos, upon trying the Minimoog Model D (one of the greatest synths ever made) for the first time dismissed it, calling it a “toy” and a “cash in.” Way to throw some shade, Wendy!
Catch Sauna live on May 9th at The Garrison in Toronto for Canadian Music Week with Absolutely Free, and on June 26th in Toronto at The Baby G with Lithics and Tough Age. You can check out Sauna’s self-titled debut below: