On Synthesizers: Wendy Carlos on Control Devices

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Continuing our celebration of 40 years of Keyboard, we are presenting Bob Moog's original "On Synthesizers" columns in their entirety. This week's comes from January, 1980. 


Bob Moog


Wendy Carlos On Control Devices

MY PAST FEW COLUMNS HAVE DEALT at length with control interfaces for synthesizers. This column contains a unique perspective on player controls from Wendy Carlos, the foremost practitioner of the art of multitrack synthesizer music production.

Wendy's synthesizer complement (described fully in last month's CK) is built around two keyboards that contain force and velocity sensors. Wendy feels that force and velocity sensitivity are absolutely essential in synthesizer keyboards. "We really began making music when we received those keyboards," she asserts. Pressure (force) sensitivity allows the musician to control a parameter by how hard he or she presses on keys that are already down, while velocity sensitivity allows parameter control according to how hard the key is struck at the beginning of its travel. Wendy comments, "I played the Yamaha synthesizer with the pressure sensors under the keys. It's not a replacement for velocity sensing, but it would certainly be nice to have both. It's nice when you're holding a note or a chord to then have continuous control over some parameter or other, which you can't have with just a velocity-sensing device."

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Carlos believes that keyboards that move sideways, like those on the Ondioline, would be of value to synthesists. The Ondioline is an early monophonic precursor to the synthesizer. It has a short keyboard that is suspended loosely. The player is able to move the entire keyboard with a playing finger, using the same sort of motion that a violinist uses, to impart vibrato. The top manual of the Yamaha E-5 works in a similar way.

Unlike many synthesists who are skilled in live performance techniques, Wendy avoids the use of conventional pitch-bending controllers. She told me that "I prefer to use the portamento switch in combination with playing chromatic runs on the keyboard to get pitch-bending, instead of a wheel or ribbon pitch-bender. The keyboard technique is much more accurate. You can hear it in the slow string sections of the First, Second, and Fifth Brandenburgs in my forthcoming album."

Good tactile feel in velocity-sensitive keyboards is especially important. When operating any controller, your fingers have to know what you're doing before your mind analyzes what you hear. Wendy recalls, "We tried a velocity-sensitive keyboard that provided very little tactile feedback. The keys weren't weighted. It seemed so uneven that it was useless to us." But in addition to telling the musician what he or she is playing, a well-designed velocity-sensitive keyboard just feels comfortable. In Wendy's opinion, "the weighted keys of the Polymoog have a 'friendly' feel, a pleasing tactile quality quite beyond anything that the keys do to the sound."

I asked Wendy what controllers she prefers to use to control parameters other than pitch. When producing a line of discrete notes, she tends to record the notes in groups of up to five. Shaping of such short passages is usually done with envelope generators and the keyboard force and velocity outputs. Although the setup time for this technique is longer than it is when a complete line is played with one hand and the panel controls are manipulated with the other hand; the results are more controlled and possess finer detail.

When long, slowly varying lines are recorded, as in Sonic Seasonings [Columbia, PG 31234], most of the contouring and expression is achieved through panel control manipulation. Carlos explains: "Sonic Seasonings was all knobs except for one or two places. It took a lot of dexterity, quite a bit of practice. Some changes were very slow and subtle, while others were rapid."

Wendy has built a continuous controller consisting of a large plastic disc, about 24" in diameter, and a lucite rod that acts as a long lever. Position transducers are attached to both of these elements. Very accurate control voltage changes can be gotten by turning the disc, while moving the lever is useful for broader changes. "With the disc controlling pitch and the lever control-ling volume," reports Wendy, "I can play lines like a Thereminist, but with visual cues. I can jump intervals exactly, and do the same kinds of swoops that string players do. For vibrato it's lovely. This is the first non-keyboard controller that I have felt comfortable about playing, and am willing to put in the practice necessary to develop some technique at it."

Wendy's evaluation of ribbon controllers is also based on how they feel. Although she has a ribbon controller, she rarely uses it because it provides no tactile feedback. "The only ribbon controller I like is the one that Yamaha makes that has the felt on top. For some reason it seems to provide tactile feedback. I feel like my fingers are telling me a little about what's happening."

Wendy's foot pedal is often patched to control vibrato, as an override on the envelope generator control that is invariably in operation. Vibrato amount and rate change slowly, which makes them ideal for foot pedal control. Faster-moving parameters, like brightness, are shaped by hand.

The mixing console in Wendy's studio is equipped with slide faders. "I use sliders so I can control ten channels with my ten fingers,' Wendy explains. "Sliders don't provide much in the way of tactile feedback, so you have to watch your fingers to know where they are. My first mixer used large rotary knobs for the input faders, like the old broadcast mixers. That provided good tactile feedback (because of the indexing property of the wrist), but limited me to actively controlling only four channels at a time."

What is Wendy's 'dream controller'? "I would like a machine where you can reach in and tweak any parameter you want, without having to put up with makeshift things. You can get good results with almost any instrument if you're inventive and ingenious enough. But after a while it gets tiresome. In the end you may discard a time-consuming approach not because it doesn't produce valuable results, but because you decide that it's not worth your time and energy."

Live performance and studio synthesists alike can benefit from Wendy Carlos's insight and experience.

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