The Modular Electronic Music System
In the early 1960s, Donald Buchla began discussions with Morton Subotnick and Ramón Sender of the San Francisco Tape Music Center about the design of a “black box for musicians”, a musical instrument intended to replace the pile of surplus electronic test equipment that they had been using in their studios to compose musique concrète. In early 1965, with $500 of a grant awarded by The Rockefeller Foundation to the center, construction of the prototype system began.
The transistor based Modular Electronic Music system, also known as the Buchla Box or simply the Buchla 100, consisted of dozens of modules with various functions ranging from audio signal generation, processing, and spatialization to revolutionary control voltage sources. It is these and similar voltage-control sources like the sequencer and touch-plate keyboards that have become synonymous with the Buchla name in the decades following their introduction.
Although initially found in academic electronic music studios spanning the United States, from San Francisco’s Tape Music Center to Harvard University in Cambridge and the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center in New York, the Buchla 100 could also be seen on stage with experimental artists such as David Tudor and at psychedelic rock events such as the Trips Festival and the Acid Tests of 1966. Even the Grateful Dead’s soundman, Augustus Owsley Stanley III, ordered a system with the intention of using it to process the band during performance. In the late 1960s, Buchla added PA and environment control components to the line, which were famously used by Merry Prankster and author Ken Kesey on his bus, Further, as well as at the Electric Circus and Paradise Ballroom nightclubs in New York and Los Angeles.
In 1969, Buchla sold the rights of the Modular Electronic Music System to conglomerate CBS, who had been delving into the music business with the purchase of Fender Musical Instruments and other notable instrument manufacturers throughout the 60s. Although the 100 was initially conceptualized around the use of frequency modulation for timbral modification, a low-pass filter was added to help market the instrument against the industry standard of the time: the Moog Modular. A new cabinet, more stable oscillators, utilizing operational amplifiers and some other catalogue updates also occurred during the CBS tenure.
In 1970, Buchla parted ways with CBS after it became apparent to him that they had no interest in further technological development. He was interested in the design of new and more sophisticated iterations of his concepts, which would lead to the production of the 200 series Electric Music Boxes in 1971 and later the 500 in 1972. As a result of this loss, CBS decided to retreat from the market rather than attempt to compete against new offerings from ARP, Moog, EMS and even Buchla himself.
As a testament to its design, more than 50 years after its creation, the iconic Buchla 100 is one of the most sought-after electronic instruments ever created. Many of the original systems are still in use at the universities and studios that purchased them decades ago. Living examples can be found at the Center for Contemporary Music at Mills College in Oakland, California, at New York University, and at the United States Library of Congress in Washington, DC.
– Photographs and text courtesy of The Buchla Archives.