Buchla 200e

Photo courtesy Richard Lainhart and his dream studio.

Electronic musicians are used to getting their gear on the cheap, and there’s something beautiful about that. But that doesn’t take away from some of the short-run, brilliant instruments out there. Topping the list: Buchla’s 200e, which continues the stories tradition of the Buchla modular synths, and the Haken Continuum Fingerboard, which provides continuous control far exceeding the accuracy and expressiveness of almost any controller out there. Our friend Richard Lainhart just took deliver of his 200e, and captures it moving into the studio with the Haken.

18 unit modular + Haken Continuum + quad sound — it’s a beautiful thing.

I singled out the Buchla modulars as an underrated synth. They might also be on the “misunderstood” list. Conventional wisdom goes that the Moog Modular synth became more popular because it was more friendly to musicians. The design of the Buchla itself, though, is often equally exceptional in comparison to the Moog Modulars. In fact, what’s remarkable about these two modulars is that they each evolved in parallel, on opposite coasts, sometimes with similar ideas — and both are incredibly sophisticated sound production instruments. Looking at the Buchla is a reminder that none of the design decisions on the Moog were inevitable, and visa versa. I spent a couple of years in the studio at Sarah Lawrence College looking at the two side by side, so I had plenty of time to reflect on this (especially since I screwed up my patches half the time).

One bit of conventional wisdom that is true is that Don Buchla favored alternatives to the standard piano/organ-style keyboard added early to the Moog — though even for those working on the Moog, this was a controversial issue. That makes the Continuum the perfect modern controller for a Buchla. What’s interesting to me — keeping in mind, I love keyboards and always will — is that the world has gradually come full circle. Maybe in the 60s, people weren’t quite ready to absorb new sounds and new controllers (though Keith Emerson sure loved his ribbon controller). Now, in the age of Wii, that has unquestionably changed.

Stay tuned; I hope to catch up with Richard and take a closer look at these instruments. There’s plenty to be learned there, even for those of us who might not be able to afford this combination.

Thanks, Richard!

  • I've never heard of the "Haken Continuum Fingerboard" before. So I just hit up YouTube, watched 2 videos, and crapped my pants.

    It's hard to choke down the $6,000 price tag … but man that's a freaking amazing controller. I want one.

    I also like the look of Richards, how he put keys on it … I think that they should come that way in my opnion … hard as hell to tell where the notes are with just a big splash of red. Then again, I'd bet that you'd get used to it anyways.

    I'm anxious to see more "Haken Continuum Fingerboard" love.

  • VanceG

    The Haken has been associated with the Kyma system for quite some time. You may find more refrences to it if you also include searches for the Kyma. I recall getting a demo of the Haken in, I believe, 98 or 99.

  • dave smith

    6,000 for the controller and 50,000 for the synth.

    i want one.

  • Well, the systems are expensive, to be sure, but not that bad – $3400 for the half-size Continuum, and about $22,000 for the Buchla.

    I think the Continuum is actually quite reasonably priced, considering the incredible mechanical labor involved in putting them together. Even the half-size unit has over 100 tiny spring-mounted magnetic steel sensor rods under the playing surface, each of which has to be installed and calibrated individually.

  • I think the equation for many is cost vs. amount of money we have to spend more than cost vs. value. 😉

    But I agree absolutely — and seeing how some people plunk money on fairly disposable workstations, I don't think even the Buchla is that far out. I would love to see a Buchla product in a lower price range, but only so that some of these designs were more accessible to a larger audience.

    I'm curious, Richard, what your thoughts are in comparison to what my colleague Jim Aikin had to say in his review for Keyboard:

    200e Audition, Keyboard 11/05

    I think it's actually fair of Jim to make the Max/MSP – Reaktor comparison, because those tools are a kind of spiritual successor to pioneering modulars like Buchla's. I know I approach patching software (and programming with code, for that matter) differently having had the experience of using the original Buchla modulars. So, in a way, it's a compliment — and just as you can't have illusions about the relative extensibility and flexibility of software, you certainly can't replace the feeling of using patch cords.

    Also of interest: history guru Mark Vail had a good write-up of the original 200 series in the same issue:

    Buchla Series 200

    The Continuum is in a different class altogether as a controller; it's really an instrument to me. Having had friends who cellists and whatnot, it's an unbelievable bargain.

  • There's nothing in Jim's review that I would disagree with, and I think his comparison with modular software is apt, too. I've used Max on and off for since the late 80s (I used to work for Intelligent Music, the original publisher of Max before it went to Opcode, wrote documentation for it, and did some programming – my MIDI Monitor app was bundled with Max for years), and Reaktor to a lesser extent, and of course they have their place. There's something very elegant and satisfying about making your own apps and running your entire musical life on a single laptop.

    The fundamental reason I got the 200e, though, was for its interface. It was all instigated several years ago when I first began collaborating with Jordan Rudess on our Space Jam free electronic improvisation project. I was using software instruments exclusively then, especially Arturia's Moog Modular V (a wonderful instrument, by the way), and really enjoying the simplicity of system consisting of just a PowerBook and a keyboard. But when we first started playing together, with Jordan playing just a pair of MiniMoogs, I came to miss the immediacy and intimacy of directly working with the knobs in realtime.

    Jordan would never use presets (one of the MiniMoogs is an original Model D, which doesn't have presets anyway, of course) but just start with the Minis in an open state, and continuously improvise with the sounds as well as the notes. It's really hard to do that with software, especially something like Moog Modular V – you need to start with some kind of preset, so you don't spend the first 10 minutes of your performance dragging patchcords around with a mouse and assigning keyboard controllers to knobs. From there, most of the interaction is through the mouse and maybe some continuous controllers. It just felt so limited compared to the freedom Jordan had in spontaneous sonic creation.

    But the MiniMoog is also limited – it's monophonic, and the signal paths are mostly fixed. After playing a couple of times with Jordan, I realized that I really wanted something with polyphony and the flexibility of true modular synthesis (I learned synthesis on Moog modular systems, and never forgot that experience.) The 200e is the only patchable modular synthesizer with true polyphony and patch memory – something we would have killed for in the old days.

    So my interest in the system isn't so much the cachet or cool factor (although it's pretty cool) but the fact that while I'm just starting to learn the 200e, it already feel like an ideal live performance system for me.

  • Oh the good ol' days!! I recoreded and performed live with my 30 module Buchla 200 series for years, and, it was probably the most music fun I ever had. Don built the system to my requirements in 1976 and it was the most beautiful, responsive and inspiring instruments I've every owned.

    What separates a modular Buchla from its contemparary software counterparts is: touch. Buchlas cried out to be touched and explored – it some ways it was like having sex- a wonderfully evolving and engaging experience. Today's software analogies are missing touch. We can patch but we can't control our patches in intuitive ways. I keep my eyes open for inspiring control suraces (that sounds so sterile) but no one seems to get it. Personally, I'm sick of all the boring single dimensional unimaginative controllers out there. You know, the problem is reflected in the the name: controllers. Like good sex, it's not about control, it's about touch and response and all the subtleties that implies. A Buchla, with all its beautiful knobs, switches and "Touch-Controlled Voltage Sources was meant to be touched everywhere which led to a very global and interactive experience… their just aren't ANY current software systems that can compare to my first true love! Oh well, you know what they say about the first one! I guess I beter stop looking and musically adjust to th current realities!

    Steve Horelick

  • Ah lovely, I was wondering when the Continuum fingerboard was going to feature again. I have had my eyes on one ever since Dr. Lippold starting constructing them. Really nice guy btw, answered my emails and concerns very honestly and compassionately.

    I'm about half-way saved up for the half-size so far 🙂

    Anyone else agree that the Fingerboard should get it's own post that at least describes what it's for and how it works? Seeing as most people don't seem to comprehend its brilliance until they see it in motion via videos and read an elaborate description.

    I think it deserves some more attention.

    Oh, by the way.. Dave Smith.. any connection to the Evolver Synth guru…?

  • Once I get the whole system configured and make some music I think is worthwhile, I'll post a performance video clip .

  • woggler

    the continuum comes standard with the key stripes printed on it. this is not an addition.

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