MATRIXSYNTH: Anachronistic

Wednesday, February 10, 2021


video by Mike Olson

"This is an electronic music composition which was created in 2018 using a vintage Polyfusion analog modular synthesizer. It is the first piece I’ve created using this particular instrument and I chose to restrict myself to using it exclusively as my only sound source for the piece. The title is in reference to the fact that I am choosing to use “antiquated” technology in this piece, (and all of my other recent electronic music compositions for that matter). I guess you could say that at this time in my life, I feel like I myself am something of an anachronism, in as much as I have spent years developing a set of skills that are no longer needed or valued, (except by special people who have an appreciation for them). Likewise, this Polyfusion synthesizer would be considered anachronistic by the vast majority of sensible electronic music composers. Perhaps that is part of what makes it attractive to me.

Aesthetically, this piece is a little on the dark side, (though not particularly lugubrious). It exhibits characteristics that could fall under such headings as “experimental drone” and “pattern-based minimalism”, over which sometimes ecstatic gestural outbursts emerge. Like much of my recent work, I am striving for a sense of restraint, which I am only partially successful in achieving. This ties in with the idea of limitations, which I am also very interested in. I begin every new composition by establishing meaningful limitations to work within. For this piece my limitations were that the piece must be all electronic and use only the Polyfusion as it’s sound source. This has resulted in a finished piece which unabashedly celebrates the sound of electronics and the sound of the Polyfusion modular synthesizer in particular. There is nothing in this piece which is trying to sound like an acoustic instrument of any kind. It is electronic and it sounds electronic. The only acoustic sound is the sound of the switch at the very beginning of the piece. This is literally the power switch for the Polyfusion being thrown. The hum which follows is the actual hum of the Polyfusion’s power supply. I mic-ed it and recorded the sound of that hum. Though this is not an audio signal being produced by the instrument, it is an audible hum which is in fact being generated by it. So it could be said that the piece starts with the physical sounds of the electronics, and then transforms into a sonic world that those electronic components produce as audio signals.

As is evident in the previous paragraph, the aesthetics of this piece tend to get tied up with the technology employed. So, let’s get into it. Without getting into the specifics of the modular synthesizer patching, the audio signal flow goes as follows: audio out from a VCA (voltage-controlled amplifier) on the Polyfusion, to a rehoused Big Muff distortion box, then to a standalone Moog ring modulator, then to a Vox wah pedal, and then finally on to a mixing console, through which the audio is recorded to a computer. Additional signal processing was freely added in the computer as the piece was being constructed. The Polyfusion was triggered (or played) through the use of a Future Retro pressure plate keyboard for the human performance gestures and a Dot Com Q960 sequencer and Doepfer A-155 sequencer for the quick-tempo patterns.

In addition to the keyboard and sequencers, there is another notable performance interface that is heavily featured in this piece: Knobs. As I listen to the piece, I can really hear the sounds being shaped in real time by the physical manipulation of knobs. These are of course, actual hardware knobs on the various devices, not automated software knobs. I didn’t really set out to make this a significant feature of the piece, but now that it’s done, I can clearly hear the knob-centricity of it. I find this interesting and very much in keeping with the hardware-based electronic character of the piece.

I feel I must now confess that there is also one audio signal sound in this piece that is not being generated by the Polyfusion, but which I chose to allow, even though I was breaking my limitation rule. This would be the ground hum sound of the Big Muff when it’s sustain knob is turned all the way up and no audio signal is coming into the device. I recorded a nice big chunk of this sound while very gradually adjusting the tone knob on the device. It is one layer in the complex of drones used in the first section of the piece. I see this sound as a kind of bridging sound between the acoustical buzzing sound of the Polyfusion power supply and buzzy analog synthesizer sounds that exist as audio signals within the wires."

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