Monday, 1 July 2019

Buchla Secrets




I have been thinking about the Buchla 200 series - the system that Don B produced in the 1970s and is widely regarded as the pinnacle of modular synthesiser design. Until recently the only way into the world of the 200 was to buy a vintage system, and believe me, as someone who has kept a keen eye on all things vintage modular for the last 20 years or so, these systems are the rarest and most desirable of all. Individual modules rarely come up for sale, some modules NEVER do, and large systems (which I have very rarely but occasionally seen) cost so much as to make them unobtainable (to me), probably in the £50,000-plus range

But things have changed in the last few years. Since Don's passing there have been several people out there producing clones, and there is at last a small but somewhat thriving new and second hand market for them. I would say that most of the 200 series modules have been covered, and I have been lucky to have got myself a few. I really like the build and sound quality of the ones I have seen, and have started to put together a system for myself. I have been looking at the range of modules that Don designed and the ones that have been cloned (some of which were possibly never even put into full production by Don in the 1970s, but are nonetheless great and useful designs). Below is a list of all the 200 series modules, as outlined by Peter Forrest in his definitive book The A - Z Of Analogue Synthesisers:

202 Portable case
204 Quad Spatial Director
205 Matrix Mixer - two 5 x 4 mixers with cross-routing
206 Dual Mixer - two 3-channel mixers
207 Mixer/Preamplifier - six-channel stereo mixer with voltage-controlled panning
208 Stored Program Sound Source - a complete synthesiser
212 Dodecamodule
216 Touch Control
217 Touch Keyboard
218 Touch Keyboard
219 Touch Keyboard
221 Kinaesthetic Input Port
226 Quadraphonic Monitor/Interface
227 System Interface - EQ, pan, reverb, and two 4-channel mixers
230 Triple Envelope Follower
232 Frequency Detector
237 37-key Polyphonic Keyboard
238 61-key Polyphonic Keyboard
242 Programmable Pulser
248 Multiple Arbitrary Function Generator
256 Dual Control Voltage Adder Model
257 Dual Voltage Control Processor
258 Dual Oscillator
259 Programmable Complex Waveform Generator
264 Quad Sample-And-Hold/Polyphonic Adaptor
266 Source of Uncertainty
270 Quad Preamplifier - four mic/instrument inputs
275 Dual Reverb / Equalizer
280 Quad Envelope Generator
281 Quad Envelope Generator
284 Quad Envelope Generator - Adds voltage control to the Model 280
285 Frequency Shifter / Balanced Modulator
291 Dual Bandpass VCF
292 Quad VC Lo-pass Gate
294 Four Channel Filter
295 Ten Channel Filter
296 Programmable Spectral Processor

What I have been thinking about is which modules really represent the complete sound aesthetic of the 1970s Buchla world, looking at it from todays perspective. What did Don want to achieve during this period of his career, and what actually got designed and made?

Here is a modified list from which I have removed superfluous modules such as those that have been superseded, replaced, duplicated or simply irrelevant to the purpose of the idea I am trying to convey, such as those designed specifically for Quadraphonic playback

207 Mixer/Preamplifier - six-channel stereo mixer with voltage-controlled panning
208 Stored Program Sound Source - a complete synthesiser
212 Dodecamodule
218 Touch Keyboard
227 System Interface - EQ, pan, reverb, and two 4-channel mixers
230 Triple Envelope Follower
232 Frequency Detector
242 Programmable Pulser
248 Multiple Arbitrary Function Generator
256 Dual Control Voltage Adder Model
257 Dual Voltage Control Processor
258 Dual Oscillator
259 Programmable Complex Waveform Generator
264 Quad Sample-And-Hold/Polyphonic Adaptor
266 Source of Uncertainty
275 Dual Reverb / Equalizer
281 Quad Envelope Generator
285 Frequency Shifter / Balanced Modulator
291 Dual Bandpass VCF
292 Quad VC Lo-pass Gate
296 Programmable Spectral Processor

And below is a list of modules that I think is the quinissential lineup of the 200-series, removing again superfluous or minor funtions

207 Mixer/Preamplifier - six-channel stereo mixer with voltage-controlled panning
218 Touch Keyboard
227 System Interface - EQ, pan, reverb, and two 4-channel mixers
248 Multiple Arbitrary Function Generator
257 Dual Voltage Control Processor
258 Dual Oscillator
259 Programmable Complex Waveform Generator
266 Source of Uncertainty
275 Dual Reverb / Equalizer
281 Quad Envelope Generator
285 Frequency Shifter / Balanced Modulator
291 Dual Bandpass VCF
292 Quad VC Lo-pass Gate
296 Programmable Spectral Processor

So now I will add back in one of the multi-function modules that Don introduced into the lineup - the Dodecamodule which is able to replace some of the stand-alone equivelant modules in the range (but are not dual versions like the originals). Here are the functions contained within the Dodecamodule: Preamp, Dual Noise Source, Envelope Detector, Stored Random Voltage, Random Voltage Source, Balanced Modulator, VC Bandpass Filter, 3-Channel Mixer, Triple Envelope / LFO, Triple Lopass Gates, VC Output Mixer with Reverb

There was also a design for a VC Delay Unit (Model 277) which I’m not sure ever made it into the lineup, but the schematics and panel design were I belive completed. This is what is left

212 Dodecamodule
218 Touch Keyboard
248 Multiple Arbitrary Function Generator
257 Dual Voltage Control Processor
258 Dual Oscillator
259 Programmable Complex Waveform Generator
277 Delay Unit
296 Programmable Spectral Processor

If I am being thourough then this does remove the some features found in some of the standalone versions of the modules, namely the Frequency Shifter, EQ, and the VC element of the Envelopes. However, I believe that the above system would give you the COMPLETE Buchla 200 experience in nearly every way, with all the signature elements, funtions and sound, as well as the interactive and compositional features that Don’s amazing inventions provided. Below is a picture of all the essential modules (excluding the Model 277 Delay Unit)


Below is the system that I have put together, which includes two clones of the 144 Dual Squarewave VCO which I have put into the system with macthing blue Rogan knobs (this cloned version, made by me and Mike Peake a few yars ago, has an extra sawtooth output and is very similar to the Buchla 258 dual VCO in character and function). There is also the 208 Stored Program Sound Source that I took out of my Music Easel case and the 218 keyboard which I put into a new housing to match the 112 Touchplates that I have in my 100 series system. It also has a 261e dual VCO which I have put Rogan knobs on as well


It should be noted that the MARF is an extremely deep module that has some special functions such as sample and hold, complex envelope shaping, colmplex trigger gating, quantizing, external voltage processing, the list goes on and on. I have included the expander unit in my system which simply adds an extra 16 stages to the MARF. I also note that there are two important innovations that Don introduced in the 200-Series which sets it apart from his earlier 100 System, and can be regarded as critical to the signature sound he developed. This is the waveshaping and timbral processing on the Model 259 VCO, and the spectral processing of the Model 296 filter. These two modules, along with the MARF, provide what is in my opinion the most sophisticated synthesis ever produced within the analogue domain

What I have learnt is that although the Buchla 200 series may seem to contain a huge and baffling array of modules, released over a long period during the 1970s and into the 80s, it actually boils down to quite a confined number of funtions, which if thought through carefully, can now be assembled in a very complete way at a fraction of the cost of an original system, and even well below what would have been charged back in the 1970s by Buchla & Associates. Its a very good time to be into modular synths!



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