Buchla 200e modular analog synthesizer by Clueless
The Buchla 200e is the latest work of musical and electronic art from synthesizer pioneer Don Buchla. The smallest system they suggest on the website is a 4-module unit ($5350) which gets you a MIDI interface an envelope generator, a filter/gate module, and a flexible (if enigmatic) tone generator. The two principle tone generators to choose from (259e and 261e). Both have LFOs that can run in the audible frequency range as well and thus generate a full range of FM modulation effects, but there's a huge difference between analog FM (which never truly locks in the DX-7 sound) and digital FM (which can). Nevertheless, even in this simple configuration, the organic nature of the sound--coupled with the opportunity to tweak them in very hands-on ways--is strangely compelling.
Stepping up to six ($7350) or eight modules ($11,950) transports one from what is basically a complex monophonic tone generator to something that can mix and project two-tone polyphony into quadraphonic space. Add the 291e Triple Morphing Filter and you can do that with some serious shaping. The 291e has 8 stages, each of which can define filter frequency, bandwidth, and amplitude for each of three filters. Stage transitions can be clocked or timed, and parameter changes can be in quantum steps or continuous. It is still very bare-bones, and if you start at this level, you will almost certainly want more very soon. But it's a very real start.
Stepping up to 12 modules ($16,000 give or take) and you can begin to experience what makes the Buchla 200e so interesting. There are so many control voltage inputs on the various units thus far that are simply begging to be driven, but in most smaller configurations the only voltage generators are wave- and envelope-like. The 250e Arbitrary Function Generator is a 16-stage function generator. Each stage can produce two control voltages (which are quantized, morphed, or selected from among several inputs) along with two pulse generators. The stages can be looped, nested, self-clocked, externally clocked, or directly addressed via a control voltage. By adding the 250e, or the 251e Quad Sequential Voltage Source, arbitrary patterns of voltages can be implemented, creating melody and/or harmony when applied to pitches or mayhem when applied to other control voltage parameters. This is where the fun begins!
My first system was a 18-panel system and ran me about $20,000. It consisted of a 225e midi decoder, two 259e and two 261e complex waveform generators (enough for 4-note polyphony), two each of the 281e, 292e, and 291e modules, the 210e, the 250e, the 227e, and two other modules not yet introduced: the 260e Source of Uncertainty and the 266e Duophonic Pitch Class Generator. The Source of Uncertainty provides both audio noise (pink, white, and blue) and random control voltages (spontaneous or correlated, sampled and/or altered, or combinations of all). White noise is actually a very valuable signal when you have a 291e with which to shape it and the 281e/292e envelope/filter/gate functions to work with. The random control voltages can be used to address stages of the 250e in random orders, leading to interesting effects. But this just scratches the surface. If you want to hear how noise and tones combine to create a very complex drone, check out this video:
But the beauty does not need to stop there. I decided to upgrade my system from an 18-module 3-boat system to a 24-module 4-boat system. Buchla gave me full credit for my 3-boat frame against a new 4-boat frame (sweet!) and I started adding some really exciting modules: the 222e Multidimensional Kinesthetic Input Port, a 255 Control Voltage Processor (great for portamento) 256e Control Voltage Processor (great for everything else), a 285e Frequency Shifter / Balanced Modulator (great for ring modulation and creating a whole new class of FM sounds), and a 297 infinite phase shifter (haven't really gotten the hang of this yet). Clearly in the bonus round now, this powerful system allows one to explore realms of sound that, quite honestly, I could never have imagined without these tools inviting me to explore them.
Needless to say, when Buchla came out with several new modules, including the 296e Spectral Processor, I had to have one--or two. So I commissioned a second 24-module 4 Boat system, and am just a few panels shy of having that filled up as well. I have doubled up (or tripled up) in some cases with what I already have, but each module can be used in so many ways that having two or three or four of the same kind is not at all redundant, nor even merely "more of the same". The 281e is so commonly used with the 292e that one can use a standard banana shortening bar instead of a patch cable to connect them. But there are so many other ways to use the 281e, whether its advancing the stages of the 291e, the 250e, the 251e, or creating FM modulators for the 259e, the 261e, the 266e, the 285e, or even the 291e. The incredible flexibility of the 250e, as both the basis for pitch sequencing and rhythmic sequences, as well as for controlling the stages of the 291e, argues for having at least one in every system.
It is also worth noting the the 3rd-party Pendulum/Rachet (from Eardrill) works perfectly. It makes odd-meter polyphony a snap, freeing up my other sequencing tools for more complex duties.
All in all, the complexity of the system is very much a part of its beauty. Part of it can be absolutely baffling until, in a flash of insight, the hows and whys and whats become perfectly clear. The Buchla 200e is not inexpensive, but it is what it is: a pioneer's dream system.