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“An Awesome Beast” Resides In The Cole

Published: October 15, 2015

Rychard Cooper
Rychard Cooper

There is a hybrid beast growing in CSULB’s Cole Conservatory of Music, thanks to longtime recording engineer and media archivist Rychard Cooper.

An analog and modular synthesizer, a throwback to the 1970s and a rarity in the CSU, is being assembled in the conservatory’s Gerald Strang Electronic Music Lab. Described by Cole Chair Carolyn Bremer as “an awesome beast,” the pioneering electronic instrument consists of separate specialized modules which are not hardwired together but are connected with patch cords.

“This is not purely analog,” said Cooper, a member of the university faculty since 1999 who received both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from CSULB. “This is a hybrid instrument. The most important thing about this is not its analog nor its digital elements. It is the modular element. In a normal synthesizer, with the keyboard people are familiar with, all the routing inside is pre-done in the factory. This instrument takes all of the wiring inside the synthesizer and brings it all out to the front. You can rearrange the wiring in any way you like including ways that were never meant to happen. You can create sounds no one ever thought of before. It’s like sculpting with sound.”

Reviving the past isn’t cheap.

“I realized there was a lot of equipment left in the Cole Conservatory from the 1980s,” he recalled. “Some of it was rare and most of it was useless. So I decided to use the state auction site to auction off the equipment which is the only legal way to get rid of it. I used the money to buy the synthesizer including the case and the modules. Then I’m going to learn about writing grants. The whole thing will cost $10,000 by the time it’s finished.”

The genesis of synthesizers began in the 1970s when Robert Moog and Don Buchla invented their own versions on the East and West coasts simultaneously. Individuals were using audio test equipment with simple oscillators and filters. Moog had the idea of putting it all together and making it patchable.

“Then they began to make performance instruments,” explained Cooper. “You could take a mini-Moog on stage and solo with it. Eventually, they created the DX7 which was the first commercial digital synthesizer. It had lots of sounds that people liked but were really difficult to program. So nobody did.

“Now we’re getting back into a period where we want access to the inside of the synthesizer,” he added. “Believe it or not, this has become a hipster thing. There are stores for them everywhere from Santa Monica to Portland to Brooklyn. There are boutique manufacturers working out of their homes making one or two specialty modules for sale and I’m buying them up as quickly as I can.”

Students have been quick to respond and every class Cooper teaches is full with a waiting list. He has three sculpture majors in his class who want to learn how to incorporate sound into their art and engineering majors want to learn how to build them.

Cooper, who comes to CSULB from teaching stints at Cypress College and Cal Arts, believes students who are engaged creatively become committed scholars.

“If you’re just trying to give students information, they will take it in and spit it back on a test,” he said. “Instead of spending an hour over the weekend doing homework, they spend 20 hours making music. We have composition majors in this class who create electronic pieces they use in their recitals.”

Cooper believes working with the synthesizer has made him a more discerning audio engineer.

“What is great about this synthesizer is the way it enables the user to patch analog things into digital things and back again,” he said. “I can listen to the Beatles and recognize a Moog synthesizer. Once you know the sound, you can identify it the same way you identify the sound of a bassoon. I hear sounds now coming from modular synthesis that gives me no idea what went into it.”

While other musicians fret about harmony, melody and rhythm, Cooper knows “timbre” or the way an instrument sounds.

“It is why a piano and a flute sound differently when they play the same note. This machine is all about timbre,” he said. “You can create timbres no one has ever heard before. That is why I love this machine so much. When I earned my bachelor’s and master’s here in composition, I learned to love manipulating timbre. It is something I really enjoy.”

Cooper believes the 20th century machine has plenty to say to 21st century students. Because this synthesizer is so much fun to play with, he’s hoping students will tell their friends about it everywhere from engineering to dance and encourage them to take these classes.

“It wasn’t intentional, but I think it will happen,” he said. “I hope these students go on to create new things I never would have thought of.”