MATRIXSYNTH: Morton Subotnick Writes About Control Tracks

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Morton Subotnick Writes About Control Tracks

Via Peter Grenader of Plan b/EAR.

"The following was written by Morton Subotnick in 1972 for the long-
defunct Synthesis Magazine in which he talks about his use of control
tracks in Sidewinder. This piece was actually published before that
album was released."

Title link takes you there. It's at the top of the page that reads "Click here for an article written by Morton Sobotnick on his use of control tracks on Sidewinder."

Update 12/7/2009:

Morton Subotnick - "Sidewinder"

YouTube via fallonmccoy
"american electronic composer Morton Subotnick's fabulous work"


  1. Great read.... and no Midi zippering!

  2. Here's the wacky thing, though... I always thought Sidewinder was done on a 200 system, but, other than the "new '200' model envelope detector" mentioned at the end of the article, the examples uses the 100-series term "attack generator," plus a couple outright 100-series modules in the patch diagrams: the Harmonic Generator & the 10-channel gate mixer.

    But the cover of Sidewinder has a picture of Mr. Subotnick at the wheel of a 200. What gives?

  3. To my knowledge (here goes, I'm gonna get nailed for saying this), Sidewinder was largely done on the 200 system. The percussive sounds throughout are 292's - you can here the ring clearly. hold on a second...

    OK, just spoke to him, and it was a conglomeration of both 100 and 200 series instruments. Most of the control tracks were done on the 100 however.

    Now, something I remember - the 200 that was in CalArts studio B303 was delivered to Mort's house from Don's factory during the time Subotnick was working on Sidewinder, because at that time CalArts was still housed at Villa Cabrini in Burbank, before their permanent facility in Valencia (and the studios) completed. I couldn't imagine he wouldn't have used the thing on this piece under those circumstances.

    One thing I just learned though - some portions of this piece were taken from source tapes for a score he did for Doris Chase's computer generated film entitled Circles. You can see a still from that and read about it here:

    Oddly enough however, the infamous jews harp section Mort toldme did NOT utilize the 292 filter. That one was surprising to me. He said it was a 'standard bandpass' using a gated feedback loop to create the resonance (Q) VC.

    Hope this helps.

  4. Great! Thanks Peter!

    Mr Matrix, please put a Buchla tag on this one so we'll find it later.

  5. Very interesting. Modulating data onto a carrier tone in that fashion was a common technique used for aircraft and spacecraft telemetry back in the day. I've got an old book that describes all kind of wild modulation schemes, combinations of AM, FM, PM, and some other funky stuff like pulse duration modulation (PDM, not PWM). Given that JPL was pretty much right up the street from Cal Arts, I wonder if Morton got the idea from them, or if he came up with it independently.

  6. Regarding Cornutt's question:

    Control Tracks weren't a Subotnick innovation, they were used by composers in Europe as far back as the early 60's.

    As far as Cal Arts, it was discussed a lot in the composition program and there were assigments which required their use. A pretty intimidating technique on paper, but once you started working with them it was fairly easy and really useful.

  7. Peter: Thanks for the info.

  8. Wow, Peter, thanks for making the call! I always figured the 191 variable bandpass was responsible for that sound. Verbos & I tried to get its lowpass section to feed back one night & the results were pretty ugly, but I'll have to try the same trick in bandpass mode.

  9. Remember though Mort is the definitive right-brain synthesist. He didn't/doesn't approach composing on synths in terms of the technical (FM indexes, DC offsets, etc). He approaches things in purely musical terms/relations. So mentioning a 'standard bandpass' may have meant he used a Kron-Hite bandpass or something like that and just ran an external feedback loop.

    That being said, I'd kill for a 191 filter....those things were amazing.

    - P

  10. Hey Pete, i've got a job for ya ;-)

    Seriously, what's so special about the 191? (I have not tried one myself) how does it differ from the 291? If it's so fantastic why isn't there a Plan B Model 11?

  11. The 191 Sharp Cutoff Filter is a big, ugly, oddly laid out module that sounds mean as hell. Unlike the 291, it is switchable between bandpass & separate lowpass/hipass filters. Also unlike the 291 it has no Q control, but, honestly, the sound is so different it doesn't make much sense to compare. It's just 24 dB/Oct of meanness. I think I keep saying "mean" because I like the way it distorts when you run +4 200 stuff into it, but even when you run the right 0dB levels into it you get a nice, gritty, musical sound.

  12. I have the impression it is pretty rare too, isn't it? Damn, I don't seem to have the schemos for this module. It would be fun to try it some day.


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