Interview with Klaus Schulze  

"What is a Synthesizer?"

Summer 1976

Auf Deutsch

Q: Klaus, for those who look with astonished eyes at your equipment, one question arises very easily: Is all this really necessary, wouldn't be less more? And isn't your music just recalling stored sounds or does the musician still decide and provide his own musicality?

KS: I have to explain first what a synthesizer actually is, and what possibilities a synthesizer has.
A synthi is all and nothing. You can either use it for testing the electricity or to make music. One synthi would be enough in the studio, because of multitrack recording. You are able to combine always new tracks and sounds, and a large synthi gives you a limitless amount of all kinds of sounds. With the Big Moog one can do everything in a studio, there are no possibilities that can't be done. But because I play live I cannot do five different things simultaneously. Therefore, I use different synthesizers depending on the needs and intentions. For instance I have the little ARP Odyssey on which I normally play the solo voices. I mean, on the Odyssey I play solo guitar, solo trumpet etc. I use it because it is relatively easy to handle. It is quickly to transpose, the filters are easily to blend in or off without fumbling around too long.
Then I have the ARP 2600, which is connected to a sequencer. A sequencer is something like a mini computer that stores a melody or a rhythm. In that way it is possible to store whole bass lines and recall them. In this regard there are no limits for a sequencer. It works like this: [follows a technical essay that I dropped here...]
Actually a synthesizer is nothing else than a voltage controlled tool. If you play alone, as I do, the sequencer has enormous advantages, indeed I can't think to play without it. For instance I programmed a bass line, which I can recall and at the same time put it on the keyboards. Which does not mean if I programmed this bass line in C I must play the whole time in C. No. I can press any key on the keyboard, and the bass line from the sequencer will follow always the basis key that I play. Because of this I have something like a bass player behind me, who's absolutely reliable and whose playing I can control and change [followed by even more technical explanations...
Because of this constellation I have a background in which something is happening, a musical movement is present, from where I can go on. Besides, I use the ARP 2600 for specific sound effects. Some things are possible because of its excellent ring-modulation. If I stop the sequencer it stays on one tone and I can go on play with the keyboard. I prefer then to use a setting that gives me a bell sound. I rarely play tonally on the 2600.
The EMS Synthi A I only use for typical effects like water, wind, twittering and thunder, everything I need for the musical theme. I can recall certain situations and impressions, I can do bridges and with the help of the ring modulation I can play strange things that sound like women's voices etc. By the way, I once started with the EMS.
Before we come to the Big Moog I should mention some preset keyboards, like the Farfisa Syntorchestra. With that I play the background harmonies that support the sequencer runs. With these preset keyboards one cannot do too many things. You have some tumbler switches to change the pitch, for instance from flute to trumpet, there are also some limited filter possibilities, but that is it. With a real synthi you can do everything or nothing, with a preset keyboard you can only play harmonies and change the pitch a bit. On Timewind you can find very good examples how I combine the two. To sum up: To fulfil my harmonic ambitions I use two "Syntorchestras" and the "Professional Duo" organ (which is, by the way, still a very profound instrument, even if I use it less than before). For the brass sounds I have the Crumar "Brassman". It all goes into a specially built mixer that I have on stage with me. I can adjust, recall and mix everything by myself. I see the mixer as part of my instrumentation, and therefore I had very good filters built in to it. To every instrument I can add very precisely the treble or the bass. In addition I have three sent/return ways and special monitoring outputs. With all this I can very carefully insert echo, reverb and phasing, and get exactly accentuated changes in sound. As echo machine I use a Dolby Revox taperecorder with remote speed control and digital display. Because of this I can find and control the required tape speed accurately. With other echo machines, be it Binson, Copycat, Dynacord, Roland or H&H, I had to accept always too much noise. And these instruments work with plates that wear out soon, or with tapes that jump at the splicing seam. Their pre or after tape delays are limited to just a few settings, and generally all these machines add a more or less muddy sound. The solution with the Revox is of course very personal, and nothing for rock people. For my kind of music this system is nearly perfect. I take the echo "after tape" and the original sound "pre tape". Other machines give only one sum: the original already mixed with the echo. With my system of using two sounds, the original and the echo, I can create a ping-pong effect. If the tape goes slower, the duration between the two signals is longer. As said above, this effect I can control very precisely. Normally I use on stage a tape speed of about 8 cm per second, and I have the possibility to go down to 1 cm per second.
The phaser that I use was also specially made for me. Schulte from Berlin [no relation to Schulze] made it for me with a phase lag of twice as long as normally. This can be done easily by others, you only have to adjust the trimmer a bit.
For the reverberation I use in the studio the BX 20 from AKG, and on stage I use the smaller and movable BX 15 [soon later we took the BX 20 with us on tour].
I rarely use the mixer's filters because the oscillators from the Moog are so powerful that I can leave the mixer's at "linear". Only for the Syntorchestra or for the ARPs I have to add some bass from the mixer so that I get the necessary punch. Which is understandable if you look at the instrument's prices. One Moog oscillator has the price of two complete Farfisa Syntorchestras.
All these instruments have their good and not so good parts. For me the Minimoog has just two things that are good, the oscillators and the filters, better forget the rest. The ARP has at least sample & hold (a random generator) and trigger switching. A Moog can hardly be triggered by itself, because it has only one output, the third oscillator. With that you can only trigger the filter and the pitch, that's it. With the ARP you can trigger the sample & hold, you can switch off the oscillators from the keyboard and let them control themselves. By that, pure sounds are possible, feedback can be made, the filter resonance can be opened so that it just whistles. The Odyssey has many possibilities that are not possible with the Minimoog. I think that the Minimoog is so popular with many bands just because it's so easy to handle. I mean, the spectrum of sounds isn't overwhelming, I hear at once if someone plays on a Minimoog. Yes, it has the possibilities of the flywheel and vibrato and you can do some wailing and howling as Rick Wakeman does. The English in general like to wail, the portamento seems to be their pet sound these days. Besides, you don't need to have technical understanding to use the Minimoog.
The Big Moog is of a different class. I have it now for about half a year, and I think I need further ten years until I really know it and until I can use its possibilities systematically and purposefully. At the moment I'm just able to get a few of this universe's potentialities. It has ten oscillators, three envelope generators, three voltage controlled amplifiers, various twelve-step filters, so that I'm able to generate out of a white noise a man's voice. These filters are incredibly good. For certain sounds that I imagine, it needs a particle of a millimetre at the potentiometer... With these fixed filter banks I'm able to adjust exactly the wanted sounds... And to change them, the Big Moog has its own filter coupler. Three things are combined, highpass, lowpass and a coupler that brings the two together. These highpass and lowpass filters are voltage controlled, and this is very interesting, because it is possible to change the filters by the oscillators and by keyboards. With a pressed key the filter changes, can be opened or closed, like a wah-wah effect, just more precisely and clean.
The many mixing possibilities are most important. Each of the ten oscillators has four outputs. I can connect what I want, I can put one oscillator on each other, can use a filter on the way... Here are the difficulties to understand this synthesizer and to speak about it. With every connection of one osci with another or with the filters, however these connections are, every time a new sound is generated, the possibilities are not limited. While working with the Big Moog, even trained and established users are surprised of always new sounds that nobody ever imagined before. These things happen each day.
To play with the Moog you don't have to be a musician, it is enough to be a technician or a person with enough technical understanding. Only if you want to do music with the Moog you have to be both, a musician and a technician.
Here we have the largest problem with synthesizers. I had quite some experiences and played many concerts, but it's still the same kind of problems that make the music playing with the Moog so difficult. What is so beautiful with doing music, with or without synthesizers, is the "let go", the "take off". The use of synthesizers don't allow this. If you work with these tools, you must have always one ear for them, you must listen carefully. All sound changes, all effects, all possibilities that you use or want to use you must do very consciously and rationally. You have to turn knobs of filters and oscillators just an iota of a millimetre, and it is impossible to do this out of a "high" feeling. If you do, then suddenly some kind of unwanted sound grossly insults your ears, and the "high" is completely gone at once.
Therefore, you must be both simultaneously, rational and emotional. Out of this reason I prepare certain things for a concert, programme it before. These settings are run during the concert and with this background I am able to fly high with my keyboards. In addition I use certain sound collages that show the discrepancy between harmony and disharmony, or just simply between harmony and sound. I mean, beauty is only possible as counterpart of ugliness, as black is only black because of white. I could not play again and again harmonically to show how beautiful harmonies are. Sometimes I must play aggressive sounds, for just to go back to a normal triad in a minor mood, which sounds then like the glory of paradise. This is only possible because it was audible before, where else the journey could have gone.

Q: With this terrible variety of possible sounds, noises, effects that the Big Moog alone offers, and when I think of all the other offered possibilities from the rest of the instruments, can you - or can any human brain - imagine by intellect a complete structured piece of music out of this technical universe? I mean, is it still possible to comprehend the variety and "write" music without experimenting at the same time?

KS: This isn't an easily answered question. A synthesizer player is in different phases. The first phase is when you get to know the synthesizer. You can easily like everything the instrument offers you. For instance, you have a certain setting, and you love it and you play it repeatedly. You must get over this state, otherwise you find yourself in the permanent situation that you always let the synthi play some beautiful things, mostly the same. As a result the synthi controls you!
If you work consistently, if you try rationally to explore the synthi, then you overcome the fascination of the pure sound's beauty, but the danger is still there.
Because of this rational exploring of the possibilities your experience and your knowledge about these possibilities get larger and you change into the phase where you slowly become able to imagine soundscapes, yes, whole compositions.
The basic condition is, as it should be with every music and musician, that you realize what you want. These days there are about ten people worldwide who work with large synthesizer units, and all go in different directions. They fly apart in directions that will maybe lead to musical areas that are yet unthinkable.
There is the danger that an artist who uses such technical tools goes into a direction where nobody can follow him. The audience may know the Minimoog; I mean, if something is chirping they know where it comes from, but if someone sits on stage hitting a pair of drums and you hear from the loudspeakers complete melodies or the sound of bells or whatever, this isn't so easily to understand. There is a freedom where it is possible either to do what you dream or to try using the tools in a way that the audience can still follow you. This freedom must be explored.
I work today as following: I have certain ideas how a finished piece of music should be. Say, I want to build the sound of a bell. My experience tells me that ring-modulated sine tones give the purest bell sounds, and with the filters I can adjust additional soft or hard shades. On the way to this sound it can happen - and this happens permanently - that something completely different emerges. Yes, finally you get your bell sounds, but on the way you get sounds that grasp you by their beauty. Therefore you go into this new direction and suddenly you are in areas that you never dreamed of. Suddenly you get a male choir singing in the background of your bell sound. Now you must decide if the result corresponds to your primary idea, supports it, or is it in contrast to your idea.
In this regard synthesizer music is experimental music. You cannot rehearse. Everything is available, but where it is, how and in which form and soundshape it will come out, that must be controlled. Because of the conditions that a synthi asks for, it is a dialogue partner for the musician. It's like a circle. You put in your ideas, get back a result, and then you have to think how much you can use it to control the instrument, because this new regulation gets new results, and all the time you must think critically if it's still the piece of music that you wanted at first. And so on...
Many attempts are in vain, because not every way you try leads to satisfying results. The synthesizer is a very personal instrument. Your personal sound aesthetics is the dominating factor. For instance, I would never search for the sound of a trumpet because I don't like brass instruments so much. Another person would perhaps never search for the sound of bells, because he doesn't like bells. This way your own sound conception is part of the way to work with synthesizers.
Because of the countless sound variations this is no handicap. There are no real barriers for your own creativity. Even if you don't like a certain sound you are able to form it in a way which you prefer a bit more. A synthi player is not dependent on others who should reproduce his work.

Q: I don't think that a synthesizer player can generate a sound of a guitar or a drumset with the same intensity and shades as a guitar player or a drummer is capable to do. Since a while you play with Harald Grosskopf at the drums. Isn't that a sign you need other musicians for certain sounds?

KS: That's right and that's not right. If I want a guitar or a flute or whatever, I set the wanted sound at the synthesizer and play the melody on the keyboard. Every demanded sound can be made. The borders are somewhere else and of a different kind.
Because the synth player is a multi instrumentalist, he is able to play everything like he wants with the help of overdubbing. In concerts, where all instruments, all sounds, must be played simultaneously, this is impossible if you don't want to use an almost entirely preprogrammed piece. I can do already many things at once, but it is just not possible to play a keyboard solo and at the same time search for a rhythm on the Moog drum. You need to have this preprogrammed, but it should be changeable. Some liveliness is necessary, you can change the rhythm very quickly, fitting to your momentary feeling. But there is still the stiffness of the mechanical rhythm. You can make these rhythms slower, faster, but they stay mechanical. A good drummer can vary his rhythm instinctively, intuitively, make it lively, which isn't possible with a synthesizer. That's the reason I play with Harald.
There is a second reason, which is maybe the more important one. It is possible for me to create with my whole instrumentation limitless sounds and play various instruments, but one thing is impossible: the dialogue with other musicians, who are together on stage in "normal" bands. The only possible talk on stage I can do with just the synthis, whereby I'm always the questioner as well as the one who replies. This is of course different with Harald. He's corresponding very well with the synthis and his understanding harmonizes very well with mine. Through him the music is more lively and more transparent for the listener and the observer. A musical conversation takes place.

Q: This statement could help the people who say that synthesizers are no musical instruments. I often hear, also from other musicians, that what Schulze or others are doing is just "after 2 minutes they push this button, after 3:27 they move this trimmer" and so on. I believe because of the high price and the technical complexity of these instruments these prejudices will be not wiped out easily and quick. Which arguments do you have?

KS: For me, this "synthesizers are machines but no instruments" is pure nonsense. Silliness. First, there are no differences in material and workmanship. Synthesizers as well as violins are made from material found on this earth. Crystals and copper are as normal as wood or horse's tails. Already Stradivarius used many devices and tricks to give his instruments a specific good sound. In his days they modified their work with the help of acid, temperature, and lacquer... and if I look at today's rock guitar scene, I just see a lot of effect devices and different amplifiers that all have nothing much to do with a "natural" guitar sound. These arguments just against the synthesizers are idiotic. I mean, a guitar or a violin does not grow on trees, or? As all these instruments make music not by themselves, the same is true about a synthesizer. Both instruments, the violin as well as the synthi, need the musician. It is secondary if I scrape with a bow on the fiddle, or if I touch a key and give the impulse for the sound this way. In both cases I must do it carefully so that the music sounds as I wanted it to sound. There are no differences in the systematic representation. The only differences are the way of handling the tool and of the technique. While the guitar gently weeps because of plucking or bending of the strings, the violin sings because of the pressure of the bow's horse's tail hair... the synthi creates the sound because of the pressing of a key. [and KS didn't even mention the complicated mechanics of a Grand Piano!]

Q: But there are more differences. If I play a guitar, I always know which tone I create at the moment. With the synthi this is different. You didn't arrive to where you wanted to go, and the synthi itself includes the things that can alter the sound. A wah wah from the synthi isn't as obvious just an effect device as it is with the guitar, I mean just visually. The synthesizer is more complex and non-transparent, and because of the results that you get already on the way to the final sound, the primary idea is easily lost. The guitar player who plays wild and aggressively on stage can do this without restrictions by his instrument. Besides, his whole doing can be watched by the audience. If the synth player will do the same, if he even knows how to do it... but on the way the instrument gives him impulses that could change the player's intention. This is an intimate thing just between the player and his instrument, and the listener cannot follow visually or audibly. Maybe this is a reason that people see the synthesizer as a machinery of lies?

KS: Of course a synthi can tempt to "lie" to take your expression. But these results would be very frustrating for the player and also for the listener. I mean, if I want to play music I have my own mental image before I start to play. To fulfill this image, the composition, is - of course - not easy, it is very difficult to play the synthesizer this chosen way.
On the other hand it is quite easy to create sounds with a synthi. The motivation and the imagination of the composer make the difference. In "musique concrete" or the so-called "avantgarde", Stockhausen, Xanakis, Pierre Schäffer, they do true sound orgies sometimes, and it is never clear if it's a consciously chosen sound or did they just find it accidentally? This kind of music is easily done.
More difficult is of course to explore the universe of the synthesizer's musical possibilities, and to work intentionally with the discoveries. To search for new possibilities beyond the known organ and keyboard sounds, not forgetting that harmony and melody are important parts of music. Sadly, these rules were partly dropped by avantgarde composers.
I don't say that the synthesizer is made to play only harmonies and melodies. Just the contrary, it was conceived to create tones and sounds that are far beyond the already known. However, these generous possibilities should not induce a search and the use just for the extreme. One should, and that's the way I work, use this unlimited freedom to support musical principles and rules. Yes, each single sound or noise can be called music, but to use just randomly chosen tones is in contradiction to my sound aesthetics.

(Translation from German by kdm, 1997)