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Thread: Wendy Carlos's Switched-On Bach 50th Anniversary

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    Administrator lpetrich's Avatar
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    Wendy Carlos's Switched-On Bach 50th Anniversary

    Switched-On Bach: How a transgender synth pioneer changed music: "Wendy Carlos’s 1968 album of Bach music for Moog synthesiser brought electronic music into the mainstream and influenced artists from Giorgio Moroder to Daft Punk"
    Since its release 50 years ago, Switched-On Bach has been relegated to the realm of kitsch curiosity; blips and blops produced from tinkerings on primitive electronic components. Many academics and commentators believe that part of the reason the album isn’t more widely celebrated is because of the gender of its creator. Wendy Carlos released her pioneering electronic album in 1968; at the time of release, she was six months into transgender hormone therapy. When the album hit the shelves, the person responsible for Switched-On Bach was still known as Walter.
    The Moog synthesizer wasn't the first electronic musical instrument, and before all-electronic ones, there were electromechanical ones. The best-known electromechanical one is the electric guitar. Its strings power miniature electric generators: small permanent magnets with coils wrapped around them. That's why electric guitars need magnetic strings like steel ones.

    Electric organs were common back then, but they had very simple tone generators, as they are called. The Moog synthesizer had a much more elaborate and general one, one that could be programmed by connecting modules with patch cables. It was all-analog; integrated circuits were in their infancy back then, and the first CPU chip ever, the Intel 4004, did not come out until 1971.

    The modules were oscillators, filters, amplifiers, and envelope generators, as they are called. That latter one is for controlling the time behavior of sounds. To make a guitar-like sound, you'd make a fast attack (initial rise) and a slow decay (fall afterwards), with zero sustain (a plucked string doesn't sustain) and a slow release (after one stops pressing the key), so the sound will continue. To get a more guitarlike sound, one can use two of these setups, one for making the initial plucking sound and the other for the continuing sound. To sound like a string section, one has a slow attack, no decay, full sustain, and a slow release. One can also add noise to the sound to imitating the rubbing of bows against strings. Etc.
    Carlos couldn’t afford to buy one of Moog’s hand-crafted, polished walnut-finished, incredibly expensive instruments. Walter Sear, who was responsible for selling the synths, recalled, “You could buy a nice house and a nice car for what these cost back in those days.” Instead, Moog and Carlos developed a barter system that saw Carlos recording pieces of music showcasing the capabilities of the instrument. For this work and for advice that aided the development of the synth, Moog knocked a few bob off the price.

    The modular synth was about the same width as an upright piano, and 1½ times the height. The front panels were covered in dials, switches and patch cables. The instrument resembled a particularly chaotic and antique telephone exchange.
    Johann Sebastian Bach's music was a good choice, because of the style of many of his pieces. He often wrote in a quasi-choral style, where each part has only one note each at a time. That fit in well with a big limitation of the Moog synthesizer: it was monophonic, meaning that it could make only one note at a time.

    Wendy Carlos, who was Walter Carlos back then, painstakingly played one part at a time, layering them with a multitrack tape recorder, something that was already a common studio practice. If you've ever wondered how someone like Prince had played many of the instruments on his albums, that's how one does it.

    So if you've ever wondered why "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor" isn't on it, that's why -- it would be very difficult to record in that fashion.

    Switched-On Bach became one of the best-selling classical-music albums of all time, and it was a big influence. Producer Giorgio Moroder bought one and used it in Donna Summer's album I Fell Love. Mick Jagger brought one, but he and his fellow Rolling stones found it rather difficult to use. He then sold it to German electronic-music pioneers Tangerine Dream, who then went on to use it in several albums. TD's albums often have a wispy background-music sort of style, a style now known as ambient music.

    Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman got one secondhand from someone who grumbled that it made only one note at a time.

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    Administrator lpetrich's Avatar
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    Walter Carlos became Wendy Carlos in 1972, and she has made some more albums, like "Switched-On Bach 2000", with much fancier synthesizers.

    Not many others have done classical music on synthesizers, but TV-music composer Don Dorsey has done some nice albums of such music, Bachbusters (1986) and Beethoven or Bust (1988). The former one has "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor" on it, and it helped that he had more advanced synths: polyphonic ones. They have several tone generators, as they are called, and a system for dispatching note commands from the keyboard to them. This made it possible to play chords on them. So DD could play TaFiDm much more easily than WC could back then. In sheet music for TaFiDm, you can easily see its several chords. DD's version does depart a little bit from pipe-organ-like sound behavior, however, and I don't think that I want to spoil its ending.

    Scores for Bach's Brandenburg Concertos -- WC did #3 in SOB, complete with some imaginative improvisation for the second part of it. But overall, you can see why it was easier for her (him back then) -- it has several monophonic parts.


    Electronic musical instruments are now just about everywhere outside of traditionalist genres like classical music. Not just synthesizers, but also samplers and sequencers, and hybrids like drum machines. Those are boxes that play drum sounds in programmable sequences. With the development of digital synthesizers in the 1980's came the Musical Instrument Digital Interface, or MIDI. That way, one could connect a keyboard to some standalone tone generators, and one can use that to make a thicker sound, for instance.

    With advances in CPU chips came the ability to do more and more in software. Sequencing software was the first, since it is software for managing commands to make notes. Sequencing software typically uses a piano-roll-like display, showing which pitches of sound are active an inactive at each time. One can also have musical-note display, making it possible to use a sequencer as a sheet-music editor. One can either enter note data directly, or from some MIDI instrument like a MIDI keyboard. One can then edit the note data.

    Tone-generator quality has also advanced, from samples and simple oscillators to more complicated algorithms like FM synthesis (one oscillator running another oscillator at a variable rate), and to physical-modeling simulations of the electric circuits of analog synths and the working parts of acoustic or mechanical instruments, like strings and air columns and drumheads. One simulates them by finding their equations of motion and then solving those equations numerically.

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    The Doctor's Wife RavenSky's Avatar
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    Wow, that sound brings back memories! (And I never knew anything of her history, so thank you for this)

    I always credit "Switched-On Bach" and Mason William's "Classical Gas" for introducing me to classical music.

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    Administrator lpetrich's Avatar
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    Wendy Carlos HomePage

    Toccata and Moog in D Minor (Toccata and Fugue BWV 565) Bach - Best Synth Version Ever - YouTube by chris randell (2017)
    Toccata and Moog is my version of Johann Sebastian Bachs Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. Made entirely using software synths including Moog Mini, Korg Monopoly, PolySix, Prophet 5 and several 'free' synths. Listen to how the tonal colour of the music changes over time. It took almost a week to finish it, so I am now wondering how long it took Isao Tomita to put his music together!
    It's a rather weird arrangement, and from the looks of it, he did it all with his computer and likely also a MIDI keyboard as an input device.

    J.S. Bach's Toccata and Fugue in Drumstep | Jay30k Remix | Cover - YouTube -- another synth version

    Organ versions:
    Toccata and Fugue in D Minor (Best Version Ever) - YouTube
    J.S Bach - Toccata and Fugue in D Minor - Best Version - YouTube

    Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565 - YouTube - harpsichord version
    J.S. Bach - Toccata and Fugue in D Minor BWV 565 // Amy Turk, Harp - YouTube
    bGd | J. S. Bach - Toccata and Fugue BWV 565 in d minor (Guitar) - YouTube - acoustic guitar
    Dan Mumm - Toccata And Fugue in D minor - J.S. Bach - Classical Metal Guitar - YouTube - electric guitar
    J. S. Bach - F. Busoni: Toccata and Fugue BWV 565. Piano: Juan Ignacio Fernández - YouTube
    SERGEI TELESHEV J. S. Bach Toccata and Fugue in D minor on Accordion - YouTube
    J. S. Bach - Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565 (arr. for Violin solo) - - YouTube
    Vanessa Mae - Toccata & Fugue in D Minor - YouTube - she's the violinist
    BBC Proms 2010 - Bach Day 1 - Toccata and fugue in d minor bwv 565 - YouTube - orchestral version
    J.S Bach - Toccata And Fugue in D minor (Orchestral version by Eugene Ormandy) - YouTube

    Some of these arrangements are rather stripped down, and WC could have used such an arrangement in SOB.

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    Administrator lpetrich's Avatar
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    I've found this bit of rather eccentric music: Desmond Leslie - Esoteric Tone Poem (From "Death Of Satan") - YouTube from Desmond Leslie - Music Of The Future (Vinyl, LP, Limited Edition, Reissue, Mono) | Discogs, made in the late 1950's

    What you hear is found sounds, tape recorded, and then painstakingly spliced together -- musique concrète (analog sampling).

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    I remember. It wasn't a very good work. It was more a novelty. I had a copy when it came out on CD for nostalgia.

    There was a lot of electronic music at the time.

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    It's an interesting and flawed performance. My parents had this record, and even now I can summon up on my internal play-back the robo version of Brandenburg 5. Learning that Williams could only do one voice at a time helps me to better understand some of the choices made. Still, in my opinion it's bad Bach.

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    The first electrical musical instruments were electromechanical, with pure electronic ones coming later. "Acoustic" instruments are all-mechanical ones, and many electric instruments use their mechanisms.

    The first one of these was Thaddeus Cahill's Telharmonium, built in 1896. It had an organ keyboard that switched on and off electric current from motor-generators that ran at different speeds, making different pitches of sound. It broadcast its electrical output through telephone wires, so that people could listen to concerts in their own homes, and it also had some speakers in the concert-hall part of the building where it resided. It was huge and it was a big electricity user, and it was used for only a decade or so.

    But in 1935, the Hammond Organ was introduced, and it became very successful. Though it operated in much the same way, it was much smaller, the size of an upright piano, but not extending upward past its keyboards. It used gearlike "tonewheels", which were made to spin at different speeds. Near them were pickups, magnets with wire coils wound around them. As the tonewheel teeth passed by the pickups, they made a variable magnetic field in the coils, generating electricity. If that mechanism seems familiar to any of you, it is how an electric guitar works, though with strings instead of tonewheels.

    The electric guitar was invented in 1931, and electric bass guitars were first mass-produced in the 1950's, and these have been the most successful electromechanical musical instruments ever.

    Also over the mid twentieth century, various types of electric pianos were invented. Some of them were acoustic pianos with pickups, much like an electric guitar. Various other electric pianos were invented, with hammered metal reeds or tuning forks instead of hammered strings. Also invented were electric harpsichords, which pluck strings like in a guitar, and electric clavichords, which press metal blades against strings. Hohner's Clavinet, introduced in 1964, was a very successful electric clavichord.

    Why don't we see much of harpsichords and clavichords anymore? It is because of the invention and development of the piano. Its name is short for "pianoforte", Italian for "soft-loud", and by 1800, a piano could easily be much louder than those previous two instruments, and they went out of style. But electricity proved to be a great equalizer in loudness, thus permitting the clavichord's twentieth-century comeback in electric form.

    Other electromechanical instruments have been devised, like electric violins.

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    Bach is my favorite composer and in particular the Brandenburds, so I am biased. When the Seattle Symphony did the entire suite I had a front row seat.

    'player pianos' go back at least to the 19th century. A wind up roll or long paper sheet with holes, pins. or slots played tunes.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Player_piano
    production.



    Predecessors
    The idea of automatic musical devices can be traced back many centuries, and the use of pinned barrels to operate percussion mechanisms (such as striking bells in a clock) was perfected long before the invention of the piano. These devices were later extended to operate musical boxes, which contain a set of tuned metal teeth plucked by the player mechanism.

    An early musical instrument to be automated was the organ, which is comparatively easy to operate automatically. The power for the notes is provided by air from a bellows system, and the organist or player device only has to operate a valve to control the available air. The playing task is ideally performed by a pinned barrel, and the art of barrel organs was well advanced by the mid-18th century.

    And there is the Theremins
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theremin
    The 50s scifi movie Forbidden Planet had alien electronic music.

    Harpsichords are around in classical music. Lutes , recorders. In general music those kinds of instruments have been replaced by sampling synthesizers. Berkeley is supposed to have a library of samples instruments and the acoustic analysis.

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    Administrator lpetrich's Avatar
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    Maybe the first all-electronic musical instrument was the Theremin, invented by its namesake in 1920. It works by its antennas' electric charges attracting opposite charges on its player's hands, thus completing an alternating-current circuit. This completion is set up to have a resonant frequency, and the player moving his/her hands controls the hand-antenna "capacitance", thus controlling the resonant frequency. One antenna is used to control pitch, the other to control volume.

    By the mid twentieth century, all-electronic electric organs became common. Their sound making was not much more than switching notes on and off, however. By then, fancier sound making was being worked on in various research labs, and in the mid 1960's, Robert Moog offered a package of analog synthesizer modules. He moved on from there to offer a standardized configuration of his modules in a small package, the Minimoog in 1971. Such analog synthesizers became common in the 1970's, and they were succeeded by digital ones in the 1980's, with some hybrid ones in between -- digital-controlled analog synths.

    It's worth mentioning some basic features of synth design at this point.

    To make one's pitched-sound signal, one starts with an oscillator. One can then use its output, and switch it on and off with the keyboard's keys, but that would not be very much. To get more variety of sound, one needs more variation over time, and a common way of getting it is by giving an attack-decay-sustain-release (ADSR) envelope for the signal amplitude.
    • Attack -- after key on, speed of increase and level to stop at
    • Decay -- speed of decrease
    • Sustain -- level to hold at during key on
    • Release -- speed of decrease to zero for after key off

    To behave like a plucked-string or struck-string instrument, one would make attack fast, decay slow, sustain zero, and release fast. The fast attack simulates the plucking or hitting of the strings. To behave like a wind instrument, one would have nonzero sustain, though the attack level can be higher. To behave like a bowed-string instrument, one would make attack slow, attack level = sustain level, and decay slow.

    For greater realism, one can add a low-pass filter, also controlled by an ADSR system. For a plucked-string or struck-string instrument, one makes the filter's ADSR shape much like the signal strength's ADSR shape, so that higher frequencies are filtered out more than lower frequencies, much like higher frequencies decaying faster in a vibrating string.

    One can add some white noise to the oscillator's signal to get a breathy or bowed-string effect, and one can create vibrato (intensity oscillation) and tremolo (pitch oscillation) with a low frequency oscillator (LFO).

    All these features were in separate modules in the Moog synthesizer, but their configuration became more-or-less standardized in the 1970's, making the Moog synth's patch-cord programming unnecessary. All one had to do is throw switches and turn knobs.


    By the late 1970's, analog synths were made polyphonic, starting at 4 notes and thereabouts. This required multiple tone generators and a system for dispatching keypresses to tone generators.

    With digital control came the ability to load and store sets of parameters -- presets. Digital control was soon followed by digital tone generators, a result of digital circuitry getting better and better. In the 1980's, Yamaha introduced "FM synthesis". That is having one audio-frequency oscillator control the frequency of another audio-frequency oscillator. This was an alternative to doing filtering, since one could give the second oscillator's output more high frequencies by increasing the output amplitude of the first oscillator.

    Yamaha's DX7 and related synths used FM synthesis, and the DX7 became known for its electric-piano imitation.


    In the 1980's, the Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) standard was introduced, to make it easy for instruments to send note commands and the like to each other. This was eventually followed by a standard for presets called General MIDI. That standard specifies what kind of sound each preset is to make, without describing how to implement it. The first one is Acoustic Grand Piano, and it is followed by a wide range of instruments, including some notable synth sounds.

    Drums and percussion are handled by making them one combined instrument with each key making each kind. Keys for bass drums, keys for snare drums, keys for toms, keys for cymbals, etc.

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