Yesterday I created “A fairly difficult synth quiz” on Facebook and a number of folks have already been brave enough to test their knowledge of synth geekery with it. To be fair, the quiz is actually quite tough. I had some questions in mind when I wrote it, and upon researching to verify my memory I found that in two cases I didn’t know the correct answer myself. So I thought I would post the answers with some additional info, because I think some of the stories behind the questions are pretty interesting. Also, if you looked at any of the questions and thought “That’s ridiculous, no one would know that,” I will also come clean on why some of the questions are as difficult as they are, and point out at least one question that really isn’t fair at all.
If you’ve done the quiz, read on after the break. If you haven’t, and you have a Facebook account, you can take the quiz here.
Which of these electric instruments was invented first?
- Ondes Martenot
- Singing Arc
We’re off to a flying start with one of the questions I got wrong. I thought it only natural to start off with a history question, and had always thought that the first electric musical instrument was William Duddel’s Singing Arc, an instrument so obscure it doesn’t even have its own Wikipedia entry (maybe I should contribute one). I wanted to fill out the answer with some plausible competitors, and discovered that the Telharmonium was invented three years earlier.
- Wendy Carlos
- Stevie Wonder
- Steve Winwood
- Morton Subotnik
Before he became a household name (in my household, anyway) as a result of his eponymous synthesizers and samplers, Mr. K. was involved in designing OCR-to-speech devices for the deaf which could read text off a page and speak it aloud. One of his first customers was Stevie Wonder, and the two became friends. Some years later Stevie was lamenting the state of electronic instruments, and asked his friend why it was so difficult to reproduce the sounds of acoustic instruments. As a result, Kurzweil Music Systems was born, and in 1984 the Kurzweil 250 was introduced. I’m not sure how to take all the futurist stuff, but there’s no arguing that Kurzweil is a pretty smart guy. There’s a short bio here.
- Fast Larry
- Our Daughter’s Wedding
Okay this one isn’t particularly fair. Not a lot of people bought his albums, and you can’t really say they were all that important historically. They’re pleasant enough to listen to; you could think of him as an American Jean Michel Jarre, only without the light show. Another clever guy by the way – and you kind of had to be to get all that going in the 70s with available technology – who apparently owns a few technology patents. Our Daughter’s Wedding was actually a short-lived new wave band from New York circa 1981.
- Fairlight CMI
- Kyma Capybara
- MacIntosh SE
This is another one I might have gotten wrong, because I tend to get the Fairlight and Synclavier mixed up for no reason. But in retrospect FZ loved the Synclavier a lot, and talked about it in his autobiography, which I read once, so I really should know this. This album is pretty difficult listening if your favourite Zappa album was Joe’s Garage, but it did win a Grammy, so I don’t think you can call it obscure. Only one of the eight tracks on this disk is performed by live musicians, the rest is Synclavier. Another interesting fact about this album is that it garnered an RIAA Parental Advisory in spite of being entirely instrumental.
- A Casiotone keyboard
- A tape bow violin of her own design
- A ring modulator from a Moog modular system
- A vocoder
This one’s a “gimme.” Unless you don’t know the tune, I guess. A Casio appears on the recording, but I don’t think Casio ever made processors. And of course she did invent the tape bow violin, but didn’t use it on this track.
- Arp Axxe
- Moog Liberation
- Prophet Remote
- Roland AX-7
Kind of a trick question. I knew the answer was going to be an Arp synth, because they’re kind of rare. And I also wanted some lesser-known guitar-style controllers in there, because everyone knows what a KX5 or an SH-101 looks like, but fewer have seen the Liberation (except in some Devo videos if I recall correctly) and the Prophet Remote – yeah, not so much. The Axxe name in particular is misleading because the synth doesn’t resemble a guitar at all, it’s just a big old box. I considered using the Avatar instead, which was the guitar synth prototype (controlled by a guitar, like the later Roland units) that eventually sunk the company. That’s another interesting and sad story.
- Woggle Bug
- Music Easel
Don Buchla isn’t a name you know unless you’re a real geek, electronic music student, or modular synth enthusiast. And of course these groups are not mutually exclusive. The correct answer is another very obscure module made by Wiard and inspired by Buchla’s designs. So this one is pretty arcane, I’m quite impressed if you got it right.
Any synth player should get this even if they hadn’t heard of the term, because we know the filter in the Minimoog is low pass, which means it isn’t a notch or a band-reject filter (two names for the same thing, so that’s another clue), and “coffee filter” is just silly. The name refers to the appearance of parallel resistors in the schematic, which look like a ladder.
- A Prophet-5
- An ARP 2600
- An Oberheim OB-X
- A Moog Modular
This question turns up in synth forums all the time and I’m kind of sick of seeing people ask it. So this is my pathetic attempt at disseminating that small piece of information. I have heard that the sound is only a tweak or two away from one of the original factory patches.
- The sample rate
- The Nyquist frequency
- The harmonic content of the source material
- All of the above
You know this one if you have a sampler, or a digital audio setup. Or, if you know, as my wife did, that “All of the above” is usually the right answer.