It seems the legends are true – there really was LSD added to vintage synths. A Bay Area, California Buchla 100 reportedly triggered an acid trip decades later. Allegedly, anyway.
The equipment in question is a Buchla Model 100, 1960s vintage – the modular that defined what now some people call the “West Coast synthesis” style. I learned on one of these, too, though don’t recall any particular hallucinations.
The report comes from a local CBS television affiliate in San Francisco, KPIX, and their broadcast operator Eliot Curtis. (Synthtopia beats me to this one, though I’d seen the video last night – karma for when I was writing up Elektron news next to them this month!)
The LSD itself was located inside the machine, looking like crystals, and while we don’t have the specifics of the test, was apparently tested for authenticity. Finger contact with that substance triggered a nine-hour trip.
You may be wondering how this LSD lasted this long. I haven’t been able to find any data on that – which might suggest whether or not this LSD originated at the Buchla’s manufacture or whether someone added it later, or even if the story is true at all (CBS or not). The only study I could find deals with decomposition in urine, not storage of the chemical itself. But the synth should at least have kept the substance away from light and most likely also humidity, reducing its rate of deterioration. (Eliot also seems… well, fairly convinced!)
Whether you believe the LSD here is from the 60s or not, there is a verified association of Don Buchla and LSD and the use of the drug at some events. (That doesn’t mean everyone was tripping – I heard the Joshua Light Show creators explain that they needed to stay sober for their work, and the optical effects were effectively trippy enough!)
From the CBS report:
In 1966, some Buchla modules ended up on an old school bus purchased by LSD advocate Ken Kesey and his followers known as the Merry Pranksters.
During the last of Kesey’s acid tests — LSD-fueled parties — at Winterland on Halloween in 1966, electronic sounds, possibly from the Buchla, appeared to interrupt an interview of Kesey.
Buchla used LSD and was friends with Owsley Stanley, the genius behind the Grateful Dead’s sound system. Stanley, also known as Bear, was a masterful sound engineer and legendary hero of the counterculture. He was also famous for making the purest LSD to ever hit the street and kept such a low profile that not many photos of him exist.
What is in question here seems to be the exact provenance of these modules, which might locate the history of the alleged LSD discovery. Knowing who reads CDM, I imagine our readers may have some idea.
Also, while Synthtopia and others say this means the ‘red panel’ myth was true, that may be a stretch. The story is, the red paint on Buchla’s red panels had LSD in it – so you could, perhaps, lick the panel if you needed a little extra creative flow in the studio. I had also heard this story related when I was researching the Moog recreation of Keith Emerson’s modular – don’t forget, the East Coast was into some strange trips in the 60s and 70s, too. But those stories notwithstanding, it at least sounds like this particular acid had been stashed inside the machine, not in the paint as the legend goes.
Then again, who cares where it was – synths that can make you literally hallucinate are a pretty wild discovery, let alone the possibility that they might do so decades later.
As for the TV report, it’s worth watching just to see their reporter do the open in front of the synth – this is not your normal evening news special interest story, so thank you, Bay Area, you’ve still got it:
Having just returned from Russia, let me say on behalf of people repairing Soviet instruments, “ah, lucky Americans, they get actual LSD causing their hallucinations, not old Communist chemicals…” (I’ll try to inhale deeply while I’m in Riga near some Polivoks and can let you know what happens. Seriously, don’t lick any eastern bloc electronics. Or… some of our current stuff, for that matter!)
For more Buchla 100 history, here’s an unboxing by the Library of Congress – though no word on whether this got the US government or this University of Chicago researcher high:
Unboxing the Buchla Model 100 [Library of Congress Blogs]
This song seems … literal now:
Am I Trippin’?
Okay, this story has so many strange things about it that I feel obligated to add a whole addendum just to cover those burning questions. I hinted at these in the story originally, but they keep nagging at me. Those doubts and confusions go something like this:
The LSD should have degraded. KPIX claims the LSD is from the 60s, which is some mind-bendingly old stuff. The molecular structure of the drug should degrade in a way that costs potency – so it will cease getting you high. I need someone with some chemistry background here to determine just when, but half a century would be beyond incredible.
What form was it in? The reporting implies the LSD was in pure crystal form, which would also be pretty incredible. On one hand, it might answer the potency problem. On the other, it raises the question of why someone would store pure crystal form drug at all … least of all inside a synthesizer. (Oh God! The cops are here! Quick, give me that Buchla 100 and a screwdriver!) Oh, speaking of which –
Why would you store drugs in a synth, and then not retrieve the drugs? This seems especially bizarre given they’re inside the synth. I suppose “because you were on acid” would be one explanation, uh, sort of? But that still raises … so many questions. (Who? When? What? Why? Wh.. wha?!)
Who tested this, and how? Different chemical tests have variable results – here I guess I just have to contact KPIX, though this story may mean for now they’re getting a bunch of mail.
How was it absorbed through contact? This one also relates to the potency/degradation and dosage question, naturally. But it seems historically there are some questions about whether skin contact is enough, as some other folks have asked. Whatever happened, top tip: do not rub your eyes or lick your fingers while working with electronics, please. (Also, things like lead poisoning are a lot less fun than an acid trip, I’ve heard.)
Does this really tell us anything about Buchla history? There were no red panels here. That story is even stranger – why didn’t former Buchla engineers have a clear answer to whether the panels were dipped in LSD or not? (Doesn’t that seem like something you’d need to do really intentionally, and doesn’t it seem like you’d remember?) Okay, okay – because it’s fun, yes. I mean, some MeeBlip synthesizers were blessed by a magical troll in the woods of Alberta that granted engineer James Grahame four wishes, and that troll specifically spit on some of our new run of geodes. I won’t tell you what that does for you, but you can find out.
Mainly, I just hope that this story doesn’t spread so far that all of us have to disassemble all our instruments every time we reach a border crossing. I know I’ve got a lost of dust and dirt in there, anyway, and I hope it’s not potent enough to warp anyone’s mind.
But seriously, anyone who can shed light on any of this, I’m all ears. It also seems there would be little reason for the story to be fabricated – but it seems what we’re missing is some details that make what happened make sense.