At Moogfest 2019 we chatted with Kim Bjorn of Bjooks— a writer/publisher creating some of today’s most important references on electronic music. In writing Patch & Tweak and Push Turn Move, Bjorn has amassed a deep knowledge of the history, gear, and techniques that span the totality of modern music synthesis.
The HUB: You just wrote what will likely be known as one of the most important references on modular synthesis. What inspired you to do that?
Kim Bjorn: Creating Patch & Tweak was based on my own personal wish of having such a book when starting out with modular synths, because I was looking around and there wasn't one about modular synthesis. And if you want to get into it, you have to read these old books and manuals about modular synthesis, or watch a load of videos. And at some point, you just want to sit down and work with it, actually reference things, turn to page XX and look at a topic, etc. So I approached Chris Meyer, my co-author, who I would say did the heavy lifting on a lot of this stuff, while I concentrated on the interviews and introductory topics. We both agree that neither of us could've done this alone. It's like when 2+2 makes 5.
The HUB: You interviewed a really diverse range of artists working with modular synthesis. What did you learn about the community from doing that?
KB: When we talk about the modular community—diversity is actually a key point here. Because you have people like Hans Zimmer with a lot of stuff in their studios, doing very specific scoring work, to experimental noise artists from Japan, or artists like Caterina Barbieri from Italy, who's doing counterpoint compositions in a more raw style. You have all sorts of these interesting artists doing their thing. And that's the beauty of modular. You can create your own instrument. You can dive into the process of creating your own voice, and spend time on that. The community is so personal for so many people and there are also many personal philosophies, which results in these different modules with a particular vision behind them.
Kim Bjorn leading a discussion at Moogfest 2019.
The HUB: So, what makes a synth a classic?
KB: I think that if it's approachable and easy to grasp for the user— or it could be quite the opposite, actually. If it's unapproachable, and people are like, “this is mystic!” But there are many classics, of course, and people have their favorites. I think it's actually approachability, then personality, then instrument— that you can feel connected to it. You see a lot of companies trying to lower the approachability, so people can get into playing music faster with the instrument or the ecosystem.
The HUB: What are some recent synths that have caught your eye?
KB: Teenage Engineering OP-1: It’s small, portable, it's very cleverly designed. And it's very versatile. And it's just a lot of fun. Personally, it's one of my favorites. I always put it in my backpack, there's always room for it and people can do lots of advanced stuff with it. It’s not recent, but it’s a classic.
Korg Volca Modular: Korg is really lowering the barrier for people to get into playing a modular instrument— price-wise and in regards to approachability. It’s a neat package with small patch cables that gets you into the West-Coast approach of modular synthesis - and it has a really nice sequencer too. We’re so fortunate to have electronic instruments today that are actually affordable for more people than they were in earlier times.
Moog Mother-32 and Moog DFAM: The Mother-32 and the DFAM gives you a lot in a compact format; You have all the patch points to the right, so it won't get messy— you can still get to the knobs. That's nice, actually. And you have a sequencer, you have a full voice. It's small, and it's fun.
Moog Grandmother and Moog Matriarch: I really like the Grandmother, because it's fairly simple, but with the patching options, you can have some more fun. It's a great synth for the price, again, and it's colorful! The Matriarch just opens up this world with more options— stereo filter, stereo delay, four-note paraphonic, etcetera— and again; instant tweakability.
Waldorf Quantum is a whole new thing where you have a big screen, with a very colorful display, a lot of variety in synthesis approaches. You have granular and particle synthesis and stuff like that. It’s great with new stuff like that.
Korg Minilogue XD: It’s also an all-in-one package; You have an extra voice where you can actually program your own stuff, and it has built-in effects, and a great sequencer. We now have this possibility of instruments going between software and hardware - like the Mutable Instruments’ Plaits being available in the Korg Minilogue XD (and Prologue). This hybrid thing is definitely really interesting. It opens up so many possibilities, and I'm excited about that.
Behringer Neutron: A great, affordable package if you want to get into modular synthesis— it has two oscillators, a great delay, lots of patch points, and has become an entry point for many.
Make Noise 0-Coast: A great entry point if you want to break your habit of thinking only in subtractive synthesis. On the 0-Coast you work with a more additive approach of adding harmonics, and there’s a “slope-generator”, utilities, mixer, MIDI, and a lot more— it’s definitely a lot of fun, especially together with a sampler.
The HUB: What was your first synthesizer?
KB: A Casio CZ-5000. I saw it on the back of a Jean Michel Jarre album and was like, “I'm going to get that. That's cool.” And for me, that was also the sound of the '80s, you know, the new, cold, digital sound, which was the sound of new stuff coming. And when you're a teenager, that's what you want. So for me, digital phase-distortion synthesis was the way into learning how to create my own sounds on a synthesizer.
The HUB: What is the most important thing to know when diving into modular synthesis?
KB: I'd say you need to know the components: the four basic categories of what makes a sound in the modular domain; audio generation, audio modification, control voltage generation, and control voltage modification. So if you think of these four categories, it's actually much easier to say, okay, I want something to generate a sound. I also want something to modify the sound. Then I want something to actually modulate the modification of the sound, like modulating a filter or an envelope modifying the amplification when triggered by a note on a keyboard, for example. So, if you think in these four basic building blocks, then you can go deeper by mixing it up and asking the question, “what if ..?”. For example; what if an oscillator (sound generator) could modulate the frequency of a filter (sound modifier)? You can go in any direction you want to explore, whether it’s composition, generative music, noise, sound design, beats– whatever you can think of. That’s the beauty of it.
Keep up wtih Kim Bjorn at www.pushturnmove.com.