“When Leslie Craythorn retires as the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music’s senior technical officer this year he will leave behind a rare instrument.
On request of the university, Mr Craythorn has spent some of his last months on the job meticulously restoring a rare Electronic Music Studios (EMS) Synthi 100 modular synthesiser.
With its rows of coloured knobs and primitive displays the large grey cabinet looks like something from an old science fiction TV show and, in a way, it is.
Mr Craythorn said the instrument is identical to the one used by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop in the 1970s to create sound effects and incidental music for Doctor Who.
He first encountered the Synthi in 1975 when he was employed as a technician in the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music’s electronic music laboratory.
“When I walked in and saw the size and the immensity of the machine… it’s overwhelming,” he said.
He worked with the machine nearly every day for the next 12 years, supporting students using it to create bold experimental music.
My count is we’re down to maybe three Synthi 100s which are actually working and in original condition, of which this is oneLeslie Craythorn, University of Melbourne
Delivered to the university from London in March 1973, the Synthi 100 became the centrepiece of the Conservatorium’s electronic music studio.
It was used to create Electronic Music, a vinyl LP released by the university in 1975, which was edited by Mr Craythorn.
The record includes ground-breaking work by Peter Tahourdin, Three Mobiles, featuring ocean-like wave noises, rapid-fire beeps and UFO sounds.
“It demonstrates that the composers in that 70s decade were very much focussed on pitchless, beatless music,” Mr Craythorn said.
“In Three Mobiles you won’t find a single chord in the western structure.”
It was this sort of music for which the Synthi 100 was created and Mr Craythorn explained that a traditional piano-style keyboard was sold separately by EMS as an optional extra.
He said EMS co-founder Tristram Cary, who built his early synthesisers while working as a radar technician for the Royal Navy, was particularly interested in pushing the boundaries of music.
“He was looking at creating instruments which could create new sounds,” Mr Craythorn said.
With its powerful sound-shaping tools and computerised sequencer, which could be used to compose and play back electronic musical “scores”, the Synthi was state-of-the-art in 1971.
It was superseded by digital synthesisers in the early 1980s.
“Digital [synthesisers] became very popular very fast,” Mr Craythorn said.
“I think it’s a tragedy because the nature of analogue music got left behind and it hadn’t run its time yet, there was still more that we needed to do.”
Restoration prompted by analog modular revival
In a regular keyboard-style synthesiser, the signal flow through the instrument is fixed, with musicians altering the sound by changing certain controls at each stage.
A modular synthesiser is different in that the signal can be routed through the instrument in many different ways, from module to module, allowing almost limitless sonic possibilities.
Interest in modular synthesisers has increased in recent years, with boutique companies offering individual modules for enthusiasts to build their own systems.
When you’re operating this instrument, nudging the joystick or tuning an oscillator, it’s very tactile, you’re very much in touch with the instrumentLeslie Craythorn, University of Melbourne
Recently it was announced that Moog’s 1970s modulars, which were the main competition to the Synthi 100, would be rereleased for prices of up to $US150,000.
It was this resurgence of interest which saw the Synthi pulled out of retirement, with students studying Interactive Composition at the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA) expressing interest in learning more about the old and rare instrument.
And rare it is – EMS made 30 of the Synthi 100s before the company went into liquidation in 1979.
Mr Craythorn has been able to track down sixteen of these, half of which are on display while some of the remaining Synthis have been modified.
“My count is we’re down to maybe three Synthi 100s which are actually working and in original condition, of which this is one,” Mr Craythorn said.
Melbourne University kept the instrument in storage for 20 years before investing much time bringing the instrument back to working condition.
Mr Craythorn individually removed each of the Synthi’s 84 circuit cards and 185 dials, cleaning them using specialty lubricants and an ultrasonic bath.
With help from EMS technician Robin Wood, he tracked down replacement components from across the globe.
He said the instrument is now more than 90 per cent operational, and he is on track to have it fully operational in time for a planned concert in late March.
Describing the process of restoring the synthesiser as “a rollercoaster ride”, having the chance to play the Synthi again has brought him the most joy.
“When you’re operating this instrument, nudging the joystick or tuning an oscillator, it’s very tactile, you’re very much in touch with the instrument,” Mr Craythorn said.”
Jamz & Zizza had an extra hour or two so we made a music!
The account appeared with “user4873635301″ leaving a Soundcloud comment on Aphex Twin’s ‘Diskhat ALL Prepared1mixed [snr2mix]‘: “Would like to know the full setup for this track, brilliant music man. I love your early 90′s stuff so much, I was doing stuff in the early 90’s, similar to you but I didn’t know about you when I did it ! Im also 43 years old :) I’m going to be uploading it to soundcloud soon, gotta dust off the old DAT’s & cassettes!”
Aphex Twin replied, writing “beautiful stuff, would love to hear more”, flagging up the prankster’s mirror account and the trove of incredible material, much of which seems to date from the late ’80s and early ’90s. Since then the account has migrated to “user48736353001″ (note the extra zero).
His Soundcloud bio now states: “fly away babies, good luck!”
As RA points out, two EPs have also appeared on a Bandcamp run by a “user48736353001″, but we can’t say anything for certain about their provenance. The fact that each EP costs £7 certainly makes us sceptical.