Saturday, February 09, 2019

first synthesizer

All our instruments series, episode 6

After five instruments made in Germany, here comes one from Japan and a very special one too. I visited the Museum of musical automata (Deutsches Musikautomatenmuseum) at Bruchsal, Germany, last summer and discovered they have not one but two specimens of the Casio VL-1 in their showcases. It counts as an automaton because you can program music on it, but its bigger claim to faim is that it was the first ever commercially available digital synthesizer. I've had it for nearly 40 years and didn't realise it was so important. Essentially I thought I had a calculator that could play tunes and make funny noises.

Own photo (I chose a close-up this time, cutting off the speaker and the calculator screen on the left, which aren't very interesting. For a pic of the whole instrument (not mine, but looking exactly identical), see Wikipedia).

Anybody old enough to remember tne new wave of German pop in the 1980s (Nena et al.) may have heard it in Da Da Da by Trio. Failing that, Wikipedia lists lots of other tracks on which the instrument was used. Versions disagree on its age by the way: the German Wiki says it was produced 1981-84, the English edition says it was released in June 1979. I definitely had mine no later than 1981. (Also, dear Wikipedia, why the past tense in the description how it works, mine works perfectly fine to this day!)

Its piano-esque keyboard covers 2.5 octaves, but the range can be moved up or down an octave, so that makes 4.5. Set sounds include approximations of piano, flute, violin, guitar, and a "fantasy" instrument. With flute and piano you can guess what it's aiming to be, but for the violin and guitar sound it's less obvious. But most importantly, what makes it a synth is the ADSR mode where you put an 8-digit number into the memory of the calculator, which determines the shape of the tone. One major limitation is that it is monophonic, playing only one note at the time, although you can play that note over a programmed rhythm.

For my video, I have defined my own, sharp synth sound to have a go at Popcorn (ADSR parameters: 71105500), and I've used the "flute" sound to play the song "Une jeune fillette" from the soundtrack of the early music movie Tous les matins du monde. I've also demonstrated the other set sounds and some of the rhythms, and let the machine play its demo track. (I'm using the pencils to press the keys so you can see what's going on, otherwise my hands would obscure much of the instrument!)

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