Sunday, January 30, 2011

Folk Synthesizers

Between Trent Reznor’s endorsement and a recent New Yorker article (Nick Paumgarten, “Swarm”) the custom-built Swarmatron synthesizer is generating media buzz.

Recognizable as a key sound in the motion picture The Social Network, the Swarmatron is an analog synthesizer that plays a chord of eight notes arranged around a single note producing a beehive-type tone. Invented by two sound artists, cousins Leon and Brian Dewan, who are behind the Dewanatron business, this rare instrument (less than 50 are in existence) is just one of their many handmade electronic creations.

The synthesizer is an ideal instrument for both sonic and physical experimentation. Compared to traditional instruments, the synthesizer’s history is brief, beginning in the 1940s. According to the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians a synthesizer is “an electronic instrument, usually incorporating a keyboard, capable of producing more complex sounds than other electronic instruments that directly imitate traditional acoustic equivalents.” One of the qualities of the instrumental type is that no standard form of the instrument has (or could be) developed.

The Dewans are advocates of a folk synthesizer movement in which un-standardized artisan instruments are individually produced and therefore "have a freedom of range in form, character, [and] choice of materials." Such an instrument, "created solely for the use of its maker," is a reaction against mass-produced, pre-set, manufactured instruments.

Their creations are as visually interesting as they are audibly so, and as a result have been featured in concerts as well as prestigious art exhibitions. They often including rotary phone dials, clock-like casings, suitcases or senior-citizen walkers in the physical construction.

The library has a number of books about making electronic music and designing electronic musical instruments.

Circuit-Bending: Build Your Own Alien Instruments by Reed Ghazala (Wiley Pub., 2005).

Electronic Music: Systems, Techniques, and Controls by Allen Strange (W.C. Brown Co., 1983).

The Electronic Musical Instrument Manual: A Guide to Theory and Design by Alan Douglas (G/L Tab Books, 1976).

Electronic Musical Instruments by Richard H. Dorf (Radiofile, 1968).

Electronic Projects For Musicians by Craig Anderton (Amsco Publications, 1980).

Handmade Electronic Music: The Art of Hardware Hacking by Nicolas Collins (Routledge, 2009).

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