Programming Early Synthesizers with Patch Cords

Tom Sivak

Programming Early Synthesizers with Patch Cords

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I received my Master’s in musical composition from Northern Illinois University in 1977. NIU had one of the few electronic music studios in the country, due primarily to the presence of several avant garde composers/musicians on the faculty. As a composition student, I was granted access to the studio and had the opportunity to learn how to program these ground-breaking instruments.

Synthesizers are everywhere today and have evolved into instruments easily accessible to anyone with keyboard skills. Push a button, and sound like a trumpet. Push another button, and you’re a cello. Amazing!

Early synthesizers needed programming from the ground up. Walk up to the synthesizer and press a key? Silence! To get sound, you had to physically patch it together, with patch cords. The term “patch” is still used to describe a synth sound. (But only by the intrinsically hip, as in this example, “That piano patch sounds like the real thing, man!”)

You start with a sound source – the oscillator. Plug your patch cord into the oscillator and patch the other end into the filter envelope generator. Still no sound. Plug that filter envelope generator into the amplitude generator and press a key, and you now have sound!

Now you can go back and change elements of amplitude and timbre to the programmer’s whim. If desired, ring modulators, frequency and amplitude modulators, or white noise generators can be patched into the chain to further modify the sound.

The concept is linear. Start with the sound source, add modifiers to the chain, connect to the amp (amplitude generator) and you have sound. 

These instruments were so flexible compared to their descendants which are designed for specific performance situations, not programmability.

Today, sounds are available at the touch of a button, but your options in customizing the sound are limited. In 1970, I had to dictate each and every parameter of a sound – a laborious, time-consuming and imprecise exercise – but today, that experience gives me a deeper understanding of the pre-programmed workings of today’s synthesizers.

The new synths may not offer programmability, but they are still wired internally, exactly like the old synths, starting with oscillators connected to modifiers and amplitude generators. It took about 50 years of technological evolution so that when you play a key, you sound like a trumpet!

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