How West Coast Synthesis Works

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West Coast synthesis is a unique type of sound generation technique. Created by Don Buchla, this synthesis technique changes the shape of sounds while also deeply changing their color and character.

This method uses special tools like complex oscillators, unique wave shapers, and the famous Low Pass Gates.

When we look into how West Coast synthesis works and why it was created, we understand why it still influences today’s electronic instruments. It also plays a big part in modern sound design, even if it’s not always recognized.

But there’s still a question about how these groundbreaking ideas are used today and what areas of music production they might affect in the future.

In this guide you’ll learn everything you need to know about how west coast synthesis works.

Core Elements of West Coast Synthesis

West Coast synthesis uses inventive ways to shape and change sound.

One main method is wavefolding.

This is when a sound wave’s shape is changed to give a more rich and layered sound. It’s different from the usual ways of making sound, which takes away parts of the sound wave (i.e. subtractive synthesis).

Wavefolding adds more to the sound, making it more complex and lively.

Another key part of West Coast synthesis is the use of voltage control. This lets us change different parts of the sound very precisely.

For example, we can use things like random voltage generators and oscillators that change their frequency in a more dynamic way. This helps us make sounds that change over time and respond to how we interact with them.

The main idea behind West Coast synthesis is to always be exploring new sounds.

We can use tools like low pass gates and special envelope generators to shape sounds in new ways. These sounds can change and grow in ways that are not usual. This spirit of discovery and trying new things is what makes West Coast synthesis special.

Wavefolding and The Role of Timbre

West Coast synthesis focuses on the use of timbre, or sound color. In this style of sound generation, timbre isn’t used an afterthought. It’s a key part from the start.

Wavefolding enriches the sound by adding more harmonics, making it more complex.

The method works by folding the sound wave in on itself, creating new sounds and textures. This is different to using simple oscillators and filters. It lets artists create new and unexpected sounds.

Another key feature of West Coast synthesis is the use of versatile modulation sources. These are used to control changes in timbre.

This includes things like envelopes, low-frequency oscillators, and sequencers. These work together in non-standard ways, creating a vast range of sounds with intricate patterns and textures. This flexibility in modulation shows how important timbre is in West Coast synthesis.

Wave Folding Shown Visually

Low Pass Gates and Envelope Generators

A Low Pass Gate (LPG) is a combination of a low pass filter and a VCA (Voltage Controlled Amplifier) in a single module. It was first introduced in 1970s in his Buchla Music Easel.

The Low Pass Gate is designed to imitate the natural acoustic response of many instruments where the louder the instrument is played, the brighter the sound, and as the sound decays, it also becomes quieter and darker.

When a sound is struck or plucked, the initial sound is bright and loud, but as it fades away, it becomes quieter and the high frequencies roll off.

In an LPG, when a voltage is applied, it controls both the amplitude and the cutoff frequency of the filter. The result is a more natural sounding decay of notes, similar to what you might hear with acoustic instruments.

Low Pass Gates are used to create complex, organic and evolving sounds. It is used to shape the timbre and amplitude of tones generated by oscillators. The use of LPGs is one of the key factors that differentiate the West Coast synthesis approach from the more traditional East Coast synthesis approach.

Envelope Generators

An envelope generator is a module that generates a voltage or digital signal over time.

This process helps shape how loud the output signal is over time. This is very important in making sounds because it helps to determine what the sound will be like.

It can be used in many different ways. For example, it can be used to control not just the volume, but also the timbre of a sound through the manipulation of the waveforms.

It can shape the harmonic content of a sound by controlling parameters of other modules such as the low-pass gate or wave shaper.

For example, by controlling a low-pass gate, the envelope generator can change the frequency content of a sound over time, giving the sound a more dynamic and evolving character. Similarly, by controlling a wave shaper, the envelope generator can change the harmonic structure of a sound over time.

In West Coast synthesis, the envelope generator often has complex and multiple stages, providing a wider range of sound shaping possibilities. Moreover, the envelope generator in West Coast synthesis is often used in conjunction with other modules such as sequencers, creating a more interactive and fluid approach to sound design.

Generating Sounds With West Coast Synthesis

West Coast Synthesis is an experimental style of synthesis that focuses on complex waveforms, harmonic overtones, and wave shaping.

Thus, there’s no hard and fast rules to generating sounds with this technique.

But let’s go through an example step-by-step approach to how it generally works:

  1. Choose or Create Your Sound Source: Typically starts with a complex oscillator. This oscillator can create multiple waveforms and allows for the modulation of one waveform by another (i.e. frequency or amplitude modulation).
  2. Apply Wave Shaping: The wave shaper modifies the harmonic content of the input signal, producing unique timbres. Wavefolding, a common type of wave shaping, folds the waveform back on itself when it exceeds a certain threshold, creating complex harmonic content.
  3. Apply Modulation: West Coast Synthesis uses a lot of modulation to shape the sound. Modulating the frequency, amplitude, or phase of a waveform can create evolving, complex sounds. This might involve using a low-frequency oscillator (LFO) to modulate the pitch of your oscillator, or using an envelope follower to control the amount of wave shaping.
  4. Add More Harmonic Content with a Low Pass Gate (LPG): A unique feature of West Coast Synthesis that can be used to shape the amplitude and frequency content of your sound source at the same time. The LPG can be controlled by an envelope generator to create plucky, percussive sounds.
  5. Experiment with Sequencing: West Coast Synthesis often uses non-traditional sequencing techniques, such as random voltage generators and complex sequencers which can change direction, skip steps, or shuffle. This can create complex, evolving patterns which are not easily achieved with traditional step sequencers.
  6. Explore Spatial Effects: Finally, adding effects like delay and reverb can help to place the sound in a three-dimensional space and add further complexity and interest.
Buchla Music Easel
Don Buchla’s Music Easel

Here are the top 5 synthesizers that use strictly the west coast synthesis technique:

  1. Buchla Music Easel: This is a popular, portable synthesizer. It uses complex oscillators and wave folding to create unique, rich sounds.
  2. Serge Modular: Known for its dynamic and complex sound design, Serge Modular uses patchable modules for sound creation.
  3. Make Noise Shared System: This one is a versatile, modular synth. It’s loved for its complex oscillators and ability to create a wide range of sounds.
  4. Verbos Electronics Complex Oscillator: This synthesizer is known for its pure analog signal path. It uses complex oscillators and wave shape control.
  5. Mutable Instruments Plaits: This is a digital macro-oscillator module. It’s known for its wide range of sound synthesis methods.

The History and Future of West Coast Synthesis

Don Buchla started West Coast synthesis in the 1960s. He made the first modular synthesizers. His work was different because he liked to experiment with new sounds.

He didn’t follow the usual music rules like East Coast synthesis did. East Coast synthesis followed Robert Moog’s ideas. Buchla liked to create new and unique sounds.

Buchla’s synthesizers were built to help musicians experiment with different sounds. They helped musicians make new sounds and tones.

Buchla’s instruments also responded to touch. This meant musicians could make sounds in a more natural and expressive way. This helped make West Coast synthesis popular.

It also helped it become a big part of electronic music.

Buchla’s Modular Innovations

Don Buchla was a pioneer in the world of electronic music. His innovative works, especially in modular synthesis, were groundbreaking. They set the foundation for what we know today as West Coast synthesis.

Buchla’s Buchla 200 Series, for example, became famous for its unique sound qualities. Buchla’s influence didn’t stop at sound creation. It also shaped how people control and manipulate sound.

His synthesizers allowed for control over many sound aspects at once. This opened up new possibilities for musicians looking to experiment with their sound.

Buchla’s user-friendly control interfaces, like the touchplate keyboards, also showed his dedication to making electronic music more intuitive and natural.

Buchla’s modular systems were more than just tools. They were like a blank canvas for musicians, providing them with a range of options to create complex sound sequences and adjust their sound dynamics.

It’s no wonder that Buchla’s work has left a lasting impact on the world of sound synthesis. His dedication to innovation is clear in his legacy.

Buchla 200

East Vs. West Synthesis Approaches

Don Buchla, from the West Coast of the USA, used unusual ways to control the sound and voltage control of synthesizers that wasn’t being done by synthesists on the East Coast.

Buchla’s tools like the famous 200 Series, gave composers a new world of sound to play with through complicated oscillators, deep frequency modulation, and lowpass gates.

On the other side, East Coast synthesis, linked to Robert Moog, usually focuses on a method called subtractive synthesis. It uses a more traditional keyboard and shapes sound mainly through filters after it’s been made.

This method often leads to more regular and harmonic sounds, which fit well with typical Western music styles.

But the West Coast approach is known for embracing randomness and complexity.

The control methods in West Coast tools, like touchplate keyboards and detailed sequencing options, provide a kind of expression ideal for cutting-edge and exploratory music styles.

The impact of these coastal differences still affects how modern synthesizers are designed. Each approach offers unique ways to chase sound innovation.

Modern Music and West Coast Synthesis

Modern instruments have evolved and integrated West Coast synthesis in a way that appeals to today’s musicians and sound designers. They combine old-school analog circuits with the modern touch of digital interfaces. This brings out more possibilities for exploring different sounds.

Today, West Coast synthesis isn’t just about recreating old sounds. It’s about pushing the limits to make new and unique sound textures.

Companies are using Don Buchla’s ideas to make devices that merge the hands-on feel of hardware with the adaptability of software.

They still use complex oscillators and lowpass gates, but now they can control them digitally. Adding touch-sensitive surfaces and gesture controllers is also becoming more popular. This design trend favors expression and real-time changes.

Sound designers love the newest West Coast instruments because they offer so many sound options. The search for new sound experiences leads to new ideas that change how we think about making music. That’s why West Coast synthesis is still a great place for cutting-edge experiments and finding new artistic ideas in today’s music world.

Don Buchla started something special with West Coast synthesis.

Today, it’s still shaping the music world with its unique sounds. You can hear West Coast synthesis in different types of music. Its comeback in modular synthesis shows just how much people value its unique design.

Artists see West Coast synthesis in many ways, from experimental music creators to mainstream artists. They like how it lets them try new things, whether in cutting-edge pop or avant-garde music.

West Coast synthesis isn’t just a thing of the past. It’s still a big part of music today, inspiring new artists to make exciting sounds. And it will continue to be a big part of the future of sound synthesis and design.

What to Do Next

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