Saturday, June 04, 2016


The wonderful Japanese composer of synthesizer music, Isao Tomita passed away the other day.  He was still creating music at 84.  Early in his career he composed the soundtrack for Tezuka Osamu’s anime “Kimba the White Lion."   A message on Tomita’s official Facebook page said he was working on a new musical titled “Dr. Coppelius” and that he knew he might not see it finished.

Tomita had recently been working on projects that experimented with virtual diva Hatsune Miku, a singing computer program produced by Crypton Future Media.  The first such project, “Symphony Ihatov,” premiered in 2012 after being inspired by writer Kenji Miyazawa’s novels. It featured Miku singing along with the Japan Philharmonic Orchestra.

Last year Tomita won the Japan Foundation Award and spoke about “Dr. Coppelius” during a related event. The project was dedicated to Tomita’s longtime friend, Hideo Itokawa, the father of Japanese rocketry, who dreamed of creating a hologram in the form of a ballet dancer.  With backup by Crypton Future Media, “Dr. Coppelius” was scheduled to be performed in Shibuya’s Bunkamura on Nov. 11 and 12 featuring a 3-D hologram of Hatsune Miku.  That seems very Star Wars-ian to me.

The first album I bought by Tomita was his Snowflakes Are Dancing.  I still love listening to it today.  Rather than it sounding artificial or sterile, it is warm, melodious, whimsical, and an enchanting recording.  It's Tomita's take on the classical tone poem composers of Ravel and Debussy.  Their classical work have a very magical aura about them.  From there Tomita went on to produce many other albums.  I also like his Bermuda Triangle album, which is full of mystery just like the legends surrounding that area of the world. His take on The Planets by Gustav Holst is also an interesting interpretation.

Also in 2015, Edgar Froese, the founding member of the German synthesizer band, Tangerine Dream passed away.  Tangerine Dream started up around 1967.  Actually before that timeframe Froese was in an earlier band that wasn't electronic, but more like a cover band typical in the day playing bars and whatnot.  While in the Catalonian resort town of Cadaques in North Eastern Spain,  Froese met and spent a lot of time with the great surrealist artist Salvador Dali.  Dali's imagination and revolutionary concepts in art had an impacting effect on Froese, instilling in him the determination to form a new and very different band, unfettered by the traditional pop music form.

The Beatles around this time had gone into a new psychedelic direction with Sergeant Peppers, Jimi Hendrix was also flying high, and music was changing in new and exciting ways.  Sometime a little bit after that time the first incarnation of Tangerine Dream was born with drummer Klaus Shultze and Conny Schnitzler, who played cello, flute and violin.  The got a recording contract, and in 1970, released their first debut album,  "Electronic Meditation".   When compared to some of Tangerine Dream's other compositions, Electronic Meditation sounds a bit cruder or rougher in its execution, but it lays the seeds for their future work, and you can definitely hear the surreal landscapes that they would eventually embellish.  

The band had many personnel changes throughout their career, this came with their second album "Alpha Centauri".   Christophe Franke replaced Shultze on drums, and Shultze went on to create his own synthesizer albums, which have their own merit.  Steve Shroyder replaced Schitzler, who stayed in the German music scene and recorded with other artist like Faust,  but Shroyder himself was soon replaced with Peter Baumann.  With this line-up, Froese/Franke/Bauman they pretty much became the core of the band for many years.

One of the first albums I heard by them was Phaedra and it blew me away.  I soon bought my own copy and every release by them after that.  I got so interested in electronic music that I eventually bought my own synthesizer, the Arp Odyssey.  I didn't know anything about synthesizers at the time, I just knew I wanted one.  Thankfully there was a book on the Arp Odyssey, which I still own, that told how to operate it and the concept and theory behind it and told how to sculpt music.

The guy that sold me the Arp also had the original paper patches, which you overlay on top of the switches and sliders to show you different positions to put them in to create different sounds from white noise, to running water, to sawtooth or squared wave patterns, and so forth.

If interested in reading a bit more about the principles of music synthesis you can look here.   Generally if I were to simplify it (and it has changed and updated itself with the more modern synths today), you have an oscillator or two.  You might think of this as a voice, but it creates the sound you want.  Once you establish the type sound you want: sine, square, sawtooth, you can then shape them further using filters and such.  It may sound complex, but once you mess around on one a bit, you get the feel of what one can do, and what each control does.  Knowing a little theory in piano can help as well, but not essential.  The early modular synths weren't even trigger by a keyboard, they were just dials and such.  It can be a lot of fun, and a creative way to express yourself.  At times it's like falling into a black hole and the barriers of time don't exist anymore because you can get lost in playing them, and it can be a fun divergence of escapism.

Well, I no longer have my Arp Odyssey.  It had stopped working as regrettably I had loaned it to a friend that smoked like a volcano.  All that smoke and tar is bad for electrical parts, which is why computers and servers, and such all try and maintain a fairly smoke free, clean environment.  So the smoke, I think, gummed up some of the sliders and such, plus to be honest, age had a lot to do with it as well.  Electronic stuff just doesn't last forever that's why you have to update your cell phones, computers, and whatever else you enjoy using.  There's a certain obsolescence built in to all of that.  But also with newer versions of things they'll contain updated features, so it's not all bad.

Anyway, I got a cheap Kindle Fire the other day.  I just got the $50. model.  It's pretty cool, but I didn't want to spend a lot of money until I could see if I'd use one.  I can see that you can use them pretty easily in your everyday life.  It's good for reading, music, gaming, and other things.  You can even surf the web a little.  It doesn't quite have the battery life that I'd like it to have, but I'm sure newer models will improve upon that as well.

What I found out though is you can download apps for them, and I picked up a really cool synthesizer app called Caustic 3.  Now whether you have an Android device or an Apple, they make this software app for both.  You can either put it on a phone, a tablet, and I've even put the Caustic 3 on my desktop.  The app for an Android device is free.  It is just the introductory app, but you can expand on that and get the full blown app for ten bucks. 

The app for a Apple device is $10.  I imagine it's the full blown model.   Here's another link as well. 

There are several synthesizers that you'll get with that app.  One of them called the Subsynth and it is similar to my old Arp, and I imagine similar to a Moog as well, depending on the model.  There's several tutorials over on Youtube that will show you how to operate the synths and has tricks and tips as well.  Here's a link to the tutorial on the Subsynth.

You'll see the Subsynth has two oscillators, one above at the top of the synth, Oscillator 1, and directly below it, is the Oscillator 2.   Those are your voices, and you can chose what sort of  wave form to start with, and then you can also mix or blend the two wave forms together.  At any rate, they tutorials will help you understand how everything works.

I ran across this today as well.  It's a 2016 Buyers Guide for real synthesizers.  If you really wanted to get into synth music, you could always purchase the actual instrument

I also ran into a web site that is called Igloo Magazine is an E-magazine on synthesizer music and has reviews and sound mixes and bytes by different musicians.  There is another web site devoted to synthesizers with news, videos and such called Synthtopia.    


At 7:47 PM, Blogger Richard Bellush said...

I'm old enough to remember the excitement inspired by Moog synthesizers in the late 60s. Bob Moog (who had a physics PhD from Cornell) said “There was never a notion that a synthesizer would be used by itself for anything.” He expected it to supplement other instruments. As the devices became more complex and capable (and cheaper), musicians got other ideas. It's often fun to see an invention used creatively beyond the expectations of the inventor.

At 9:03 AM, Blogger El Vox said...

Yes it is Richard. I remember when Wendy Carlos' Switched On Bach came out it was sort of a novelty being one of the first synthesizer albums. But it wasn't long before rock bands, and others started to use it as well. Soundtrack albums quickly followed like A Clockwork Orange and others, and it was quickly used for TV commercials as well, like the pop & pour sound of a Coke and other consumer products.


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