First – A salute to Florian Bome and his team at Bome Software.  Without his incredible software, I couldn’t have tied together my hardware into a workable system.

Here’s a timeline for the creation of the hardware/software system I now play.

1972  A friend introduced me to Frank Waterfall, an inventor who was interested in building an electronic saxophone.  He needed help designing the fingering system and mouthpiece.  In return he promised me the first prototype.  Along with Kenneth Campbell,  a talented mechanical engineer, he produced a small number of prototypes.

1973  The “Synthax” was born.  I got the first prototype, but Frank decided not to try to market it.  I took it with me to a friend’s land in Mendocino county.  There was a little cabin, an outhouse, a makeshift shower near a pool in the creek that ran by the land.  But no electricity.  I powered the Synthax with a car battery and an inverter and used a Yamaha pocket synth as the voice.  Over a period of a few months, I had developed a feel for my new “sax, but a couple years passed before I had really mastered it.

Happy, but…

Pretty soon, I decided to make it look like a stratocaster.

What was I thinking?

1975- 1976  This was all still before the advent of MIDI. The Synthax sent out control voltages only. I bought an Arp 2600 and now controlled it with the signals from the Synthax instead of the keyboard.

1976 1978  Now came a few misguided attempts to build systems that were beyond my capabilities.  The first was a switching system employing telephone switching relays, that allowed me to memorize presets for the synths.  Not having presets was a real problem.  Each time I played, I’d have to search, sometimes for hours, for the sounds I had previously used.  Building this system took many hours of soldering, and ended up being unusable because of the loud noise it made each time I would advance from one preset to the two of these to contain the code.

My first synthesizer – Arp 2600

I added an SMS module shortly thereafter.

Uniselector Telephone Switching system for storing presets – in early stages of wiring.

The second doomed experiment was a guitar fitted with a set of 12 mechanically engaged capos. It was mounted in a box containing an amp and a speaker meant to create the kind of feedback Jimi Hendrix got by holding his guitar up to the Marshall amps on stage. The capos were controlled by an output from the Synthax, and pressed down on the fretboard in the right position so the strings would resonate with the sounds generated by the Arp 2600.

My robotic guitar didn’t work. It would either screech uncontrollably or sound like a pennywhistle. Not what I had anticipated.

Guitar Resonator (failure).

Around the same time, I tried building some guitar effects pedals. The Crystal Prism was one of them. It sounded terrible, as did the others. I think I was trying to avoid playing the Synthax publicly because I was already starting to feel its basic limitation. No matter how complicated the software, and no matter how insane my additions to the Synthax hardware were, it was basically a Monophonic instrument. I could create and hold a chord, and then play on top of it, but it sounded labored and unrealistic to do that. And even more limiting… when I would take a breath, everything would stop sounding, including the “pads” or chords that were supporting the solo voice. I fought a losing fight trying to overcome these limitations, but I soldiered on.

The Synthax after years of hacking it up, adding joysticks, mini-potentiometers, rectilinear pots, and switches galore.

1977 Another introduction – This time to Efrem Lipkin, a computer systems analyst who had a penchant for impossible projects. Together we assembled a group of musicians, engineers, and programmers to design and build a 256 voice digital synthesizer. This was before digital synths were generally available. My role was to learn printed circuit design and create the circuit boards that held the circuitry.

Add photo of Grand Canonical Ensemble printed circuit board between 1977 and 1982. Caption: Grand Canonical Ensemble printed circuit board (photo in media library)

1982 I began writing software that allowed me to store presets for these synths, and to control them more precisely. The first iteration of the code was written for the Commodore 64 in C64 assembly language. It had only 64K memory so eventually I had to use two of these to contain the code. The next steps involved changing the Synthax into a MIDI controller. For this, I designed a circuit board to replace the guts of the synthax and ported the software from the C64to a PC. My friend, Bill Thibault, with whom I later collaborated on several music videos, wrote an immense amount of computer code to implement added functionality for the Synthax. In the end, I had to let go of the attempt to use a woodwind controller to make my music, b ut not before playing the instrument in as many situations as I could. Each attempt led to devastating disappointment on my part. I really can’t account for many years that followed. Alternating between fighting the Synthax and continuing to play the flute and saxophone but still craving an instrument that would let me express myself, I strode on …… until….

2004 Yes….that was a lot of lost time. I first learned of Ableton Live. Now came a series of prototype hardware controllers I needed to create in order to use Live in a performance situation. Again, I dove into my “engineer mode” and designed printed circuit boards for various designs. Eventually, I came up with this beauty:

Insert photo of 4th prototype of Live controller.

The controller had:

– 32 joysticks

– 45 faders

– 4 potentiometers

– 2 rotary encoders

– 140 switches

– 120 LEDs

This was clearly overkill, but it enabled me to work with Live until I knew what I needed and what I didn’t. This took a while… and when I had narrowed down my needs, I decided that I should replace this with commercially available modules that had begun to come on the market. This would give me the security of knowing that if the equipment broke down, I’d be able to replace it easily. No one available device fit the bill. I bought and tried several of the earliest controllers.

2009 This was the year AKAI introduced the APC Mini. Its layout was nearly a perfect match for the functionality I had built into my prototype. I invested in several of these small and inexpensive controllers and then wrote software to interpret key presses and fader movements so they reflected my way of controlling Ableton. More years of development, testing, playing, development etc etc followed.

Insert photo of APC Mini

2015 Again, I’m at a loss to explain why it took so long to finalize the software, add more controllers, and put brakes on unending “getting ready to get ready”. It was Bome MIDI Translator that held the key to tying all the pieces together. This scripting language was simple enough for me to learn easily, but powerful enough to construct complex conditional actions. Within a few years I had assembled the controller setup with it’s software and began to get seriously back into playing instead of developing. Here’s my current setup: