Sunday, February 22, 2009

Mr. Felix Visits A Buchla

So after witnessing my endless back-and-forth Buchla lust over the last several months (and really, it's gone on longer than that), I was extended an invitation to visit the venerable Chris Muir and his Buchla for an afternoon of enlightenment.

Since the Buchla lust had kicked up again as of late, I was bit worried about being exposed directly to a Buchla, but at the same time, I'm practically broke, so I wasn't that worried that I would phone up Don in the morning to place an order. I was anticipating it though.

What I got was something else.

First, the system is as visually striking in person as it is in pictures, this I knew, but after Chris turned up the speakers, I heard something I wasn't expecting. There is definitely something lost when listening to MP3s and possibly even WAV files (I can't remember how many of the demos that I have listened to have been WAVs). There is much more dimension to the sound when you're listening to it through speakers and the details of the sound are much more complex. What came across as almost noise in some MP3s, was a complex harmonic evolution of sound in real life. I'm not trying to be over dramatic, I was just surprised at the very quantifiable difference in hearing the Buchla in real life.

As Chris gave me a tour around his system, it was very interesting to see how he utilized modules in ways that never crossed my mind in the hours I had spent staring at the Buchla web pages and module images. It was equally as interesting to find out that many aspects of the modules worked differently than I understood them to. One thing that excited me was learning that the 291e filter was able to sequence through it's various stages on its own, without an external clock pulse. Each stage of the 291e has a editable time constant which determines the time until it switches to the next stage.

Speaking of the 291e, it was quite impressive. It's definitely not designed to be used as a "standard" synth filter; it's practically half a synthesizer+sequencer all its own. While it's bandpass only, it sounds incredible. It's very clean, clear, and "vocal" sounding, and with some applied audio-rate modulation, has an incredible growl. Listening to Chris make a quick sequence of the filter's stages, with different amounts of FM per stage, and some external CV to the overall frequency, was just stunning. It was like an alien spaceship was somehow singing to me. Once he started using additional nodes of the filter (this was just using node A initially!) it became even more complex. Since the amplitude of each stage is also variable per-stage, it seems to me that a 291e paired up with some kind of source for filtering, is all you need for serious experimental composition.

When we starting talking about how Chris uses his setup again and I was surprised to find that he uses his 210e router almost exclusively as an attenuator for one of his 281e modules and as a audio matrix mixer for FX (delay, reverb, etc) sends. Chris has a basic "base patch" which he builds on and modifies slightly as necessary, but also makes frequent use of the preset abilities of the 200e. While it's always interesting too see how other people use a particular module, it was becoming extra interesting to see how Chris utilized his setup and how much it differed from how I imagined using a very similar assortment of modules. Previously, I believed the Buchla was tailored for a fairly specific use of the system, or at least more specific than say combining your favorite euro/frac/modcan-format modules. Listening to Chris describe how he works with his system really changed my perspective on that. I was clearly underestimating the Buchla.

We focused on the 256e next, which I found out was one of the few modules I had fully understood going in, but it was great to see how much, and to what extent, that Chris used it. Not only does it function as a way to alter and scale incoming CV (including inverting and scaled inversion), it also allows for mixing/cross-fading multiple CV signals as well as VCA for CV.

Over the next hour (or who knows how long it was, time was hard to keep track of), we bounced around to various aspects of the system, and finally settled into the 261e oscillators...or I should say Complex Waveform Generators. To call it an oscillator really is not doing the module justice. Being two oscillators, at least one VCA, multiple waveshapers all rolled into one, the thing is practically a voice all on it's own. While most modular folks balk at the fact that the waveform generation is digital, there are several advantages that come along with that. Chief of those for me was the fact that when Range is set to "Track", the modulation osc tuning determines a pitch ratio, which is maintained as you tune the principal osc. This was absolutely amazing to use in practice. I simple tuned the modulation osc to get the desired FM side bands, and then simply use the primary osc tune to control the overall pitch. Another interesting aspect of the 261e that cannot be discerned by staring at pictures is that there are several modulation modes possible. It's not just pitch, timbe, or amplitude modulation, but rather those individually plus combinations of all of them! Pitch + Timbre modulation was quite possibly a favorite, although amplitude modulation with independent control over Timbre and Symmetry was very cool too. Even more interesting is that the Pitch modulation is always done using sine waves, where as the other modes follow the waveshape setting of the modulation osc. This seems like a limitation, but being able to have Pitch+Timbre modulation, and vary the waveshape of the modulation osc and have that only affect the Timbre was fucking awesome. Limitation my ass! Speaking of which, the variable waveshaping didn't sound that bad at all! Based on various opinions that I'd read already, I expected an almost "unusable" PWM sound, but it wasn't that bad at all. It was no AFG, but it had a very unique and special sound. Along those same lines, the Hard Sync sound is not the ripping harmonic sound that one typically associates with Hard Sync, but it had it's own endearing character. The interesting thing was that Sync on it's own was not that impressive, but Sync mixed with FM+Timbre modulation made sounds like I had never heard before. Like circuits being tortured.

I knew I was going to like the 261e going in, but I had no idea to the extent at which I would love it. The waveshaping (timbre, symmetry, and high-order) combined with FM/AM is just absolutely incredible. The lack of additional "unwanted" side-bands that digital FM offers really brings an amazing pallete of sound to the table when paired up with waveshaping. I literally could have sat there for hours turning those 4 controls (modulation index, timbre, symmetry, and high-order). The ability to go from a simple sine wave to a sound that I can't even begin to describe was...well...fucking incredible! I was also surprised how much the controls interacted with each other. Depending on how much timbre and high-order I had adjusted, Symmetry would yield very different timbrel results. Likewise, depending on how much of the Modulation Index and Symmetry I had set, the Timbre would yield wildly different results. And, I'm no stranger to teaming up FM and waveshaping. Since I picked up the Doepfer A-137, I've been feeding it a steady diet of FM and while the results are fantastic as well, I've never had the control and range of sound with so few controls. I'm really starting to run out of words to explain how awesome I thought the 261e was...and this is 1,000x more than I said to Chris after turing the knobs for who knows how long (Chris, correct me if I'm wrong, but I think I simply said "!")

We wrapped up talking about various system configurations, thoughts on the 222e, various methods of control, portability, setup time, all sorts of little things.

At this point, you're probably thinking, "ok, so here's where he starts talking about selling all his euro modules and how the Buchla is the greatest thing ever". Oddly enough, I don't feel that way at all. I thought for sure that after visiting Chris, listening to him talk about his system, and getting quality some hands on time, that I would know, one way or the other, if a Buchla is in my future. Well, I don't.

I certainly know a lot more about the system now, and feel much more educated on its use and its strengths and weaknesses, particularly from an artist's perspective. I feel like I now can make a better, more educated, decision on wether or not to turn my attentions toward a Buchla, and I feel really great about that. I know that if I do decide to walk down that path, I know what to expect along the way. For now though, I'm going to stand here at the cross-roads thinking about both roads.


But... I do foresee a 261e and 291e in my future. ;)