Wendy Carlos explains the science of synthesizers in a 1970 BBC interview

Originally published at: Wendy Carlos explains the science of synthesizers in a 1970 BBC interview | Boing Boing


I haven’t read the biography, I had it on preorder in work, but it got bumped down the to read list after this:

I have some really early Wendy from the Ussachevsky lab as well as the Bach which is less interesting to me. I do remember her website in the 90s and she had lots of great stuff on map projections and things that showed just what an enquiring mind she had.


Although I still get a chill down my spine when I hear the opening to A Clockwork Orange, my favorite Wendy Carlos album by far is the one that opened my ears to microtonality:

Highly recommended for those with a thirsty ear.


Ah that’s awesome.

I think, however, the phrase “machine made music” the narrator uses is incorrect. It’s human made music. The synthesizer is just another kind of musical instrument – I’d argue most other instruments are also machines, or are comprised of one or more simple machines.

Admittedly that ratio of human to machine in some genres of electronic music is increasingly trending towards machine.


Very cool. Those modules are huge. I’ve been building a Eurorack system over the last few months of the pandemic. I have a long way to go to fill in my first case but with the few modules I have I make a new patch most nights while making dinner. It’s been very helpful for my quarantined mental health.


That approach is often called ‘east coast synthesis’ but it’s not the only approach, as the different design philosophies of contemporaries Bob Moog and Don Buchla show. Moog wanted to make musical instruments for professional musicians, with human control over as many parameters as possible and controlled by a traditional keyboard or sequencer. Wendy was very much part of this school. Buchla on the other hand wanted to make machines that made music, and was influenced by the LA tape music scene of the late 50’s and early 60’s. No keyboards, but touch pads and electronic “sources of uncertainty” to create music and allow it to evolve over time.

Wendy is one of the reasons I got into synths. Dad bought “Switched-on Bach” and would explain to me the tech that sat behind it. That, the first couple of Kraftwerk albums and the watching the dial-and-wire porn of Keith Emerson’s Moog 55 series was all it took.


She explains everything incredibly well; I’m impressed. Although to me when she says she is using the envelope generator to control a (high-pass) filter, it sounds like it is actually controlling the pulse width of a square wave, or else it’s also controlling a low-pass filter; when there are lots of high frequencies, the sound gets very pinched, with low frequencies severely attenuated.


I very much share your idea… machines and technology are so much part of the experience of music. The idea of acoustic music is kinda absurd unless you are actually in the space with the instrument and musician, if there is a microphone, an amplifier and speaker involved then we are in a technology space

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I remember one day as a kid of 8 in the early 70s listening to my AM radio then running downstairs to get Mom and have her listen to this sparkly modern electronic music that was much better than their boring old classical music! I was pretty deflated when she told me it was Bach, but then he instantly became cool! =)


No, that’s exactly the behavior of a high-pass filter: the high frequencies pass through it, and it filters out the lower frequencies.

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I really wish… there’s a later bit of footage that covers much of the same territory that would have been much more respectful.

This footage from this particular point in time is at least insensitive- and the subject has made it plain for at least 40 years that she finds reminders of this stage of her life to be traumatic.


Grrr, I meant to say low-pass filter. (The name “low-pass” is confusing - it blocks the high notes. Calling it a “high-block” filter would be better IMO. But I digress.)

Listen to the sounds she plays at 3:01 - at the start it has only lows, at the end it’s all highs and the lows are gone.

Aha! I see what you mean, now.

The module she jacks into- the middle of the three double-width modules- is a 904C filter coupler, which links the 904A lowpass filter on the right of it (the knob she twiddles), and the 904B highpass filter on the left of it. So it’s very likely at this point the two filters are working together as a bandpass filter. That tracks with what we hear, and fits nicely with your first observation of ‘is also controlling…’.

(I’ll confess, I’d not originally watched the footage, for the reasons I described in another post in this thread).

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Ah yup, that makes sense now. Thanks for that explanation.

As for the clip itself - I’m really torn. It is really fascinating to see the confidence she projects and the clarity of her explanations. OTOH I know she is frustrated with the way her music is endlessly overshadowed by her personal life. It’s great that there are trans people who are willing to share their struggle as a way to educate those who don’t share that struggle. But it’s not fair to expect every trans individual to share that burden, and being a pioneer in electronic music is probably enough of a challenge without it. But ultimately, given where we are at with LGBTQ acceptance today (which is better than back then, but still a long way from where we need to be) I think it’s literally impossible to separate the two. Someday I hope we’ll be at a place where that’s a mere historical curiosity, but we’re not there yet.

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‘Confidence and clarity of explanation’ is a given for men, unremarkable… for women it would seem worthy of comment.

I’m torn and conflicted when I champion Wendy because of her trans’ness but I do the same about her work… “hey listen to this composition for A Clockwork Orange… it moved me greatly before I found out the composer was trans… now I’m even more impressed!”

A friends trans daughter ‘just’ wants to live her life as a woman

I disagree about clarity. Most people - men, women or otherwise - are not good communicators, and she definitely stood out for that in this clip.

I will concede your point about “confidence”, though, and acknowledge my own subconscious bias. This is how we root these things out, I guess.


“infamous” moog? When did it cease to be famous?


I love the visual design and layout of Buchla’s synthesizers.

As a side note, I would argue that Eurorack is more of a west-coast style invention, in that every enthusiast I’ve met will play around for hours and just hit upon some incredible sound that they had never anticipated or that the particular module hadn’t been “designed” for. And a lot of modules seem to have uncertainty functions built into them. It’s all a fascinating musical space that hopefully I will have the time and money to explore.


Once you take up Eurocrack you will no longer have time, nor money…

You’re so right about the randomness and west coast vibe in Eurocrack. Even the unhooking from keyboards is a big part of that.


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