Breaking news: the synthesis of the east coast and the west coast is a lie!

Marc Doty ·

Source: Marc Doty

According to a series of videos by synthesizer historian Marc Doty, the East Coast/West Coast paradigm is a myth that should be dismissed.

The coastal myth of coastal synthesis

Mark Doty is not one to shy away from controversy. He likes nothing better than stirring up a hornet’s nest of passionate paraphonic nerds with his awkward facts about polyphony and the vocal architecture of synthesizers. In his latest series of videos, he addresses the perception of East Coast and West Coast American synthesizer culture. He suggests that while the paradigm can be useful, it is not in the least accurate.

It is certainly true that Bob Moog was building synthesizers on the East Coast at the same time that Don Buchla was building synths on the West Coast. But it’s become a way of describing some synthesizers that don’t really hold up to scrutiny.

East Coast Moog

For example, people say East Coast synths are all about subtractive Synthesis. Subtraction is the idea of ​​starting with a waveform rich in harmonics, then using a filter to subtract the harmonics from it. It’s your classic sawtooth or square waveform in a lowpass filter voice that sounds very familiar. The thing is, Moog modular started with sine wave oscillators that lent themselves more to additive synthesis and frequency modulation.

Subtractive elements existed in Moog, but that was not the goal. Even in the Minimoog, you can do more than just filter waveforms, and even add more harmonics through self-oscillation. So Marc says that calling a synthesizer “subtractive” isn’t an effective way to define what it can do because, more often than not, harmonics can also be added.

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West Coast Buchla

Regarding the West Coast sound associated with Buchla, it is often described as “Additive“. Additive synthesis involves taking simple waveforms and adding other harmonics in an effort to synthesize new complex timbres. Buchla introduced the concept of wave folding, where you can take a sine wave that has no harmonics and fold it to produce loads of harmonics into a much more complex waveform. But wave aliasing is not true additive synthesis, although it is a useful distinction from Buchla. Thus, to describe Buchla as an additive would be inaccurate. So also using it as a way to distinguish it from Moog is even less accurate.

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Marc goes on to demonstrate that in fact Buchla can also be quite subtractive as it has a whole bunch of filters.

Across 12 episodes, it covers many ways Moog and Buchla have been inaccurately portrayed, and it’s absolutely fascinating. I always leave his AutomaticGainsay channel feeling like I learned something important.

Semantics?

I don’t think you can argue with Marc’s logic or historical accuracy. This then makes you wonder if it’s just semantics. Does it really matter how we describe these things as long as everyone knows what we’re talking about? But then it’s a huge presumption to think that everyone already knows one way or another, and so all we’re doing is reinforcing something that’s not really correct. Marc likes to get things right, and it can be a tough, but worthy struggle.

I think when I talk about synthesizers I don’t tend to use absolutes. I might be inclined to say something has a “west coast vibe”, meaning it emphasizes wave bending and low pass gates on filters and envelopes. So I think if we don’t get too locked into our definitions, then, as Marc acknowledges, it can be a useful way to distinguish between different approaches to synthesis.

I’ve highlighted the two main videos that touch on the most common misconceptions. But go watch them all because Marc is an interesting guy, and you’re going to learn all kinds of really cool things about synths.

Marc Doty

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