Mark II, king of electronic music synthesizers, sits in a room on West i25tf Street, blinking red eyes sadly and making strange, whirring, clicking sounds. The king is doomed to die.
Having served its purpose as a pioneer device in electronic music, the mighty Mark II is being pushed aside by a new generation of lean, compact machines. The young pretenders have such electronic-sounding names as Moog, Buchia and Synkey and are the Pepsi generation of synthesizers portable, transistorized, modular, relatively easy to operate, and taking up hardly more space than an upright piano. They can be purchased for less than $3,000 (though complex models can run to $7,000 exclusive of tape recorders
And other standard studio equipment). Already the new machines have taken over a great deal of the music picture, and in the future may transform both the composing and performing arts.
Although serious composers use the new synthesizers extensively, rock and other popular-music groups also have taken to the devices enthusiastically. Among those now working with the Moog are the Rolling Stones, the Bead Boys, the Electric Flag and the Grateful Dead. A Moog was called upon fo the score of the movie “Candy.” The Beatles, who have used several other electronic methods in their recordings, recently placed an order for a Moog system.
The synthesizers can produce any sound imaginable and perhaps some that become imaginable only after having been produced.
Music and sound effects for television commercials are being synthesized on a large scale. Walter Carlos, whose Columbia album “Switched-On Bach recently stirred up much discussion in musical and recording circles, has done commercials for Schaefer beer, the phone company’s Yellow Pages, and others.
Mr. Carlos, a 29-year-old former recording engineer for Gotham Studios, holds a bachelor’s degree in physics from Brown University and a master’s in musical composition from Columbia. He keeps his synthesizer in his one-room apartment at 410 West End Avenue, where he achieves a homey touch by putting plants atop the cabinets.
In most ways, however, his setup resembles other Moogs, with their mazes of connecting patchcords and plugs that make any Moog resemble an old-fashioned telephone switchboard. In the Carlos version, two five-octave keyboards control voltage changes. The keyboards may control not only pitch, but timbre attack and decay of the tune, and many other musical elements.
The variety of ways in which voltage can be controlled in the modular synthesizers is limited only by the composer’s imagination: It would be just as feasible to hook up, as an input mechanism, a guitar, a violin, a cash register, a digital computer or a typewriter.
One school of thought, recently getting much attention in electronic circles, insists that a synthesizer can be used as a performing instrument as well as a composer’s tool. Mr. Carlos, for one, sees the Moog synthesizer as a natural development out of traditional instruments, in the way the piano developed out of the harpsichord.
The synthesizer, whether large or small, is one of three basic ways of composing what is hazily termed electronic music. The “classic” method, still valid and in use, is the “musique concrete” way—gathering sounds on tape and then splicing snippets together to achieve a desired sequence of sounds.
All electronic music, no matter how it begins, ends up on tape, of course.
The third system of composition, now slowly coming into view, involves using computers to gather and store musical information fed to it by the composer, after which the work can be “read out” by the computer at the composer’s pleasure.
“The computer is the future,” said Mr. Babbitt. “I don’t work with it myself, so I can say that objectively.”
In the immediate future, Mr. Babbitt said, the digital computer is certain to be teamed with the new compact synthesizer, and when that happens electronic music is likely to be shaken up once again.