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How I got into analogue synths
As a youngster in the early 1970's I was interested in electronics, and through listening to the likes of Keith Emerson of ELP, I was also mad keen on synthesizers. There was only so much I could get from a magazine, so my understanding of electronics wasn't great, and that of synthesizers was even less. I would read with wonderment about the 'Practical Electronics Sound Synthesizer', and dream of a time when maybe I had both the financial resources and understanding to actually build one. (I still have all the issues covering the PE Synthesizer, and the PE Minisonic—recently uploaded here. I also still have several brochures from the time, of Moog, EMS and ARP—which I have put here—plus several flexi-disk demos.)
In 1976 I set out for college with the intention of studying electronics, but the engineering department soon drummed any enthusiasm I had for it out of me—within the first term I had already decided to switch to mathematics instead. Thus for over 20 years since the late seventies, I barely gave either electronics or synthesizers another thought.
That all changed in 2001 though. Having just finished my PhD after a second bout at college, I was doing radio comms research. One day I was reading about phase-locked loops, and how VCOs were a component part of them: "ah, the old voltage-controlled oscillator, they are used in synthesizers aren't they? I could probably understand all that now, must make a note to check it out!" Shortly after I was reading Mark Vail's excellent book, 'Vintage Synthesizers', and to my utter astonishment discovered that you could still buy an analogue, modular synthesizer (I had assumed by now that everything would be digital)! I was also pleased to discover that EMIS, the UK distributor for Doepfer, was only an hour down the road, in Bristol.
After considerable wrangling with my conscience as to whether I could justify buying one—after all, what was I going to do with it?, I'm not a musician!—the decision was made. Had it not been for the work I was doing on my eyesight with the Bates Method, it may well have gone the other way, but I soon found myself in my car travelling to Bristol. A large sum of money then fell out of my pocket, and I came home with a G6 case stuffed full of modules!
I had about one weeks worth of excellent fun with it all, and then I learnt the first lesson of analogue modular synthesizers: no matter how many modules you have, it simply doesn't seem to be enough! So, back down to EMIS in Bristol for another G6 case and half a dozen more modules. This pattern continued for some while, but thankfully eased off to be just a module or two each trip.
The life changing moment!
One evening I was really struggling to understand what on earth my A-136 distortion module was doing. On looking at the small PCB I thought to myself: "Well I do know some electronics. It's probably just a bunch of op amps (of which I knew absolutely nothing at the time, other than the fact that their use was widespread in analogue electronics), so maybe I can work out just what it is doing?" So: Amazon were called upon to provide a book that would tell me what op amps were good for; I sat down and started to 'reverse-engineer' the circuit from the board; many hours and a few evenings later, I have the complete circuit in front of me, the book gave me some answers, and 'Voilà!', I understand what the module does!
That was it, my interest was well and truly piqued! It wasn't long before I had done the same with all the modules I then had, and my thirst for the knowledge to understand how they all worked got greater and greater.
As time went on and my enjoyment of this re-found interest in electronics didn't wane, the thought began to enter my head that as I did enjoy it so much, maybe I could find a job that used these skills so that I could actually get paid for doing it? Quite apart from the fact that I didn't have any formal electronics qualifications and so I would start 'near the bottom', and that because of this I was grossly over-qualified in other areas, were a friend's words echoing around my head from decades earlier when a previous change of jobs was in prospect: "you tried turning a hobby into a career once before and that didn't work", referring to my abortive attempt to study electronics for my degree. So would attempting to turn my hobby into a job take the fun out of the hobby, or would it put the fun into the job, and make turning up for work each morning a less onerous chore than it then was?
After months of deliberation it was clear the only way to find out the answer was to try it! I signed up for an HNC correspondence course to get that qualification, and hopefully this also showed to potential employers that indeed I was serious about what I was trying to do. This approach worked, as I was taken on by my current employer soon after I started looking, and the role I have now is certainly amongst the most enjoyable jobs that I have ever done—and long may it continue to be so! I finished the HNC in late 2005, and freed from that I have more time (and knowledge!) to continue enjoying my synthesizer, both playing with it, and designing and building more modules for it!
[Page last updated: 29 Sep Dec 2010]