Don Buchla, inventor of electronic musical instruments, dies at 79

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Don Buchla, an innovative designer of electronic instruments who helped develop the first line of modular synthesizers around the same time as his east coast counterpart Robert Moog, died Sept. 14 at his home in Berkeley. He was 79 years old.

Although his name is not as familiar as Moog’s outside music industry circles, Mr. Buchla created several revolutionary electronic instruments, including the Buchla 100, which was commissioned by the San Francisco Tape Center in 1963. ; the Buchla Music Easel, an all-in-one portable synthesizer; and the Buchla 700 fully MIDI compatible.

Composer Morton Subotnick used his Buchla voltage-controlled modular electronic music system (a predecessor of the Series 100 commercial synthesizer) on the historic 1968 recording “Silver Apples of the Moon”, widely recognized as the first full-length electronic music album. produced for a record company.

Mr Buchla, who also composed his own music, was also instrumental in the West Coast counterculture movement in the 1960s, working with sound engineer Owsley Stanley to build the massive system. sound of Grateful Dead while his instruments frequently provided the soundtrack of psychedelics. events such as the Trips Festival in San Francisco in 1966 and writer Ken Kesey’s Acid Tests.

In his 1968 book, “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test”, Tom Wolfe wrote about the “Buchla electronic music machine screaming like a logical madman”.

“I have always been outside and have chosen to stay there,” Mr. Buchla said in a 1983 interview with Polyphony magazine. “I have been an experimenter since childhood. “

Mr. Buchla was born in South Gate, Los Angeles County on April 17, 1937 and raised in California and New Jersey. He studied astronomy, music, and physiology at UC Berkeley and graduated in physics in 1959.

While instruments designed by Moog, who died in 2005, found their way into the mainstream in the hands of 1970s rock musical icons like Yes, Tangerine Dream and Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Mr. Buchla’s creations had more subversive applications by design.

Moog has labeled their synth modules with convenient names such as oscillators to generate sounds, filters to modify them; Mr. Buchla went for more fantastic names like Multiple Arbitrary Function Generator, Quad Dynamics Manager, and Uncertainty Source. He deliberately left keyboards outside of his designs.

“A keyboard is dictatorial,” Buchla had said. “When you have a black and white keyboard, it’s hard to play anything other than keyboard music. “


He worked on NASA projects including orders for the Gemini space capsule; designed a laser navigation aid for the blind for RCA; and produced the sounds used by composer Suzanne Ciani to create the audio signature “Coca-Cola Pop ‘n’ Pour,” heard in countless commercials.

“Don Buchla has changed the lives of so many musicians and sound makers by creating instruments that perpetually impart novelty,” composer Kaitlin Auerlia Smith said in a statement. “I am eternally grateful for its existence.”

Mr. Buchla, who was the technical director of the California Institute of the Arts, continued to design instruments into the 1970s and beyond, designing the first MIDI-compatible controller in 1987 and introducing his 200th modular system in 2004, which incorporated its classic modular designs with digital technology.

In 2012, while battling cancer, Buchla announced that his company had been acquired by a group of investors as Buchla Electronic Musical Instruments. He was fired the following year, resulting in a lawsuit alleging that he was forced to sign an unfavorable agreement and that the defendants acted “in bad faith, oppression and malice”.

The lawsuit also claimed that the owners of the company that bears his name caused a stroke he suffered in 2014. The case went to arbitration in 2015 and resulted in a confidential resolution this year. .

Mr. Buchla is survived by his wife, Anne-Marie Bonnel; son, Ezra; two daughters, Jeannine Serbanich and Erin Buchla; and two grandchildren.

Aidin Vaziri is the pop music critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @MusicSF


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