Hardware Poetics

I want to open a discussion talking about synthesizer design in a more abstract fashion. I began thinking along this line when I was considering the poetics of an instrument like the Lorre Mill Double Knot. I think it is beautiful how that synthesizer expresses its song in its form, aesthetic and circuits in such a comprehensive way. @Allieway_Audio video captures it better than me describing how the whole system is a series of interconnected oscillations.

Norns is another favourite of mine too, the occult way it conjures spells from the air. Whimsical Raps esoteric manuals always get me thinking in this way. I was also thinking about Moffenzeef, how their modules communicate Ross Fish’s sense of humour in a way I can’t properly articulate.

Some of my favourite designers who speak in poetics to me are Whimsical Raps, Buchla, Monome, Meng Qi, Lorre Mill to name a few. I spent this afternoon mapping some of these instruments into block diagrams so I could investigate. What synth components are beautiful? On their own, or as a web? How does that system manifest in its form? What does it say?

I’m curious about how others consider synthesizer systems in this manner.

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I’ve been using a new definition of “instrument” lately – if you can learn how to interact with it to make sound, it is an instrument.

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That quote precisely communicates a lot of what I was trying to articulate. I did have a literal revelation of this kind when I was recently playing with the Double Knot and I had this sense that the way my hands were communicating with the knobs, patch cables etc. I finally understood what the hardware expresses.

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I think this is an interesting line of thought too. Poetics are not always designed but can be found/improvised as well.

I think I wrote my first pop melody on a flip phone’s dial pad :slight_smile:

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I like that! I have been trying to stop thinking about instruments on a better or worse scale. One of my pet peeves are youtube channels that compare synthesizers in this way.

Just minutes ago I was having a conversation with a co-worker about why I like tape, if higher quality recordings exist.The sound of tape evokes a particular subjective emotional response, I can’t really map it to better or worse.

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And, as Edgard Varese said, “Music is organized sound”

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This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot the last several months, because I was having a hard time thinking of the synthesizer as an instrument in the usual sense and have instead come to consider it as something of a lower order of audio equipment (like consoles or pedals or amplifiers, as their ancillary components often mimic or supplement many of these, at least in the modular approach). What I settled upon was a broadened definition of an instrument being something more akin to a laboratory or even navigational instrument, as in, a tool of analysis and discovery. After all, wouldn’t the expressive or even experimental use of an instrument amount to something like the analysis and discovery of oneself, no less that of whatever mode or movement within which one works?

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Wow thank you for putting it so nicely! Lately the (until just now inexplicable) hot knife through my baseline depression has been drawing a line between my instrumental experimentation and my ability to listen and support others. It is something I value in myself and hope to develop through more music and connection. Your post helped me realize and vocalize that for myself, so thank you!

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A lot of people online reduce every instrument to a checklist of features–and I think that’s missing the point. The corollary in photography are the people that don’t leave the house without a range of lenses from ultra-wide angle to super telephoto–in direct opposition to the fact that the best photographers throughout history used a very small number of (sometimes one) lenses. What is a single lens or a good instrument, but a point of view.

“Poetry is language at its most distilled and most powerful.” -Rita Dove

Without the distillation–there is no poetry. Poetry also needs personal vision, so I think of instruments that are (generally) the vision of a single creator. The Soma Lyra 8 is probably the most poetic electronic instrument I own. It creates its own convention, is idiosyncratic, and always invites playing. It defies complete understanding and control, so the vision of its creator always stands alongside of the music I coax out of it.

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A very good point and I think the camera analogy is a good parallel example.

To me a what I find to be a good electronic instrument that is in itself singular and stand alone despite the glut of choices we have today are far and few between. To me the MS-20 is still such a prime example, and despite having spent so much time with it I still find new and interesting things I can do with it. It may not give synth tone obsessives every version of “that sound” (the Moog bass, the Buchla bongo, any number of other tired things I personally don’t ever need to hear replicated again) aside from “that MS-20 sound”, but the way the thing works as a whole I find strikes a really amazing balance lacking in other instruments. Either because of its strengths or weaknesses each individual circuit has so much character and particular behavior, and its interconnectedness can cause odd bleedthrough, and its routing options are both highly flexible and highly limiting at the same time. It has its own weird peculiarities right down to its shape. It is very much an instrument of its own to me in a way that you can spend your whole life constantly re-discovering and playing only a guitar or a violin.

I haven’t gotten a chance to play with any Lorre-Mill stuff first hand, but I feel like I’m seeing more and more people making small instruments focused on the weird/chaotic and Peter Blasser inspired type stuff. Some of it sounds really neat, some of it sounds like boring chaotic squiggles, but to each their own sound wise… the thing I’m curious about is with instruments like these which are both much more chaotic/difficult to control or much more limited in their operating scope, it keeps inching closer and closer back towards Tudor-esque composers inside electronics techniques… except people are buying a pre-composed circuit rather than designing or fiddling with it themselves. I’m wondering at what point do people feel like they are even playing anything anymore. When is it just a circuit, when is it an instrument, and at what point can the owner claim they are actually playing the thing versus almost like buying a preset. I’m having a hard time articulating this idea, but it isn’t fully formed in my head. Also for sake of discussion any of those are perfectly valid options too, I’m not trying to imply at this point that someone using those instruments is producing something of less value specifically for that reason. One could argue I do the same thing by patching an MS-20 since it is also a selection of pre-designed circuits, just more stable/predictable ones.

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Personally I like to think of this as a very blurry spectrum between tool and artwork (meaning both in the most positive possible way). Some instruments create near-perfectly predictable sounds and function as a beautifully made tool for creating other art while others create more chaotic or limited sounds and function more as an interactive sound sculpture. Music isn’t the only way of making art with sound.
(On the other hand, the tool-instruments are often compelling art in themselves and the sculpture-instruments can also make amazing music so maybe my spectrum doesn’t actually mean anything)

On a semi-related note: I went to a workshop recently on recording, and the engineer talked about how the process of recording/mixing/mastering isn’t so much about capturing accuracy as it is about capturing the energy of that music in person. I think the joy of interacting with a chaotic system and discovering/exploring that system is particularly difficult to convey in a recorded/non-tactile medium.

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Let’s unpack this a little, because it’s an idea that appears regularly. In my experience, it’s mainly a theoretical concern. Good artists use a a variety of tools and materials and fashion them into something new or interesting. Marcel Duchamp “sampled” industrial production with his readymades. The art culture at the time was outraged and criticizing Duchamp probably felt like shooting fish in a barrel–but he was making powerful art.

Too often, I see artists using the argument of something “pre-composed” or “too fully developed” as a cudgel, but what they’re really talking about is the absurd notion of “purity”, as related to their own artistic practice. Where do you put the boundary? Presets? Samples? Macro-oscillators? Digital? DAWs? It links to the equally absurd notion that artists are completely independent from their tools, environment, community, and culture.

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While verbalizing my thoughts on this is difficult, I’m not trying to argue for any kind of purity or saying its even a bad way of working. I’m not interested in arguing for or against it, especially here since it is a whole different matter. I don’t really work with tools like that so I’m more genuinely curious what the userbase’s thoughts or experience are. Do they feel like they are playing an instrument, or a circuit, and do they even distinguish between the two? Do they feel more like they are documenting something with its own behavior, almost like field recording? Or is there a level of control/interaction with instruments like that which are possible and I am unaware of. Maybe I’m trying to ask the questions in too direct/literal a way if the frame here is poetics.

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Interesting point–not at all thinking you were arguing that position–more of me making an observation on the directions some of these arguments frequently take. Getting more concrete–with the Lyra 8, I’m aware of Vlad’s presence in the instrument, but I feel more liberated than constrained by it’s design and limitations. The simpler instruments/circuits usually end of incorporated into larger things and transformed in the process. I never feel like there’s a boundary between instruments–it’s a continuum (not literally–ha). Everything gets used according to it’s strength in supporting a given piece.

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I found this doc on the ARP 2600 (my first synthesizer, so I’m biased). The design of the front panel is a recurring theme. The film’s authors attribute it to much of the success of the instrument. Notably, the design was intended as a multi-purpose tool for music composition, education and sound design.

Shortly after I posted this I had a conversation with my roommate about esoteric technical documentation for music hardware. Both of us are tech workers who have written technical documentation for other people to use. We agreed that the esoteric approach, while interesting can be exhausting when the text tries to communicate a clear message to operate a complex system.

Still thinking about this…

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I had a Folktek Mescaline, and it’s a great sounding instrument but I sold it mostly for two reasons : the DuPont connectors (really not my thing, it turns out) and the fact that whatever I did with it, it ended up sounding more like a Folktek Mescaline (both for the structure and the texture of the sound) than like my music. Which might very well be a failure on my side, but never happened with other instruments. It did sound really good, though :slight_smile:.

And it never felt like playing presets, more like playing an instrument with very specific constraints, which did not fully match what works for me.

This right here. And it’s not necessarily just the “esoteric” instruments. I bounced off the Waldorf Blofeld because it sounded always like a Blofeld, certainly because I couldn’t program it to be anything else. All instruments are constraints, and that’s what’s beautiful about them. Sometimes those constraints don’t fit what you want to do and that’s also beautiful.

Some late night thoughts, but I wanted to share my appreciation for Bergfotron, a Swedish synth designer who’s technical achievements leave me constantly bedazzled. I think if you do an amount of dive into the design of DIY synths you will come across their website (particularly their technical shootout of VCA circuits which is where I first encountered them) Their website is a treasure trove, of overly engineered analog circuits. They also seem to obsess with the arcane pursuit of Hardware Physical Modelling what with their fascination of trapezoidal waveforms and breath controllers (it makes me wonder if Mangrove had some inspiration?)

Their design the Transister synthesizer syncs up with my individual vibes in a way that is difficult to articulate. My desire to play a Bergfotron circuit is maybe only out competed by touching a real Flower Electronics synthesizer

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It just happened that I yesterday got this video in my Facebook feed with Carla Scaletti explaining her view of what makes something an instrument. Pretty interesting.

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