Transcription: 0367 - Mike Metlay (Bjooks)

Released: October 24, 2021

Darwin: Okay. Today I get a chance to revisit someone that we've interviewed two times previously, but this time it's a very special occasion, so I'm excited to get a chance to talk to him. His name's Mike Metlay, Dr. Mike Metlay, if you please.

Mike Metlay: "Dr. Mike." Ha ha.

Darwin: He has been involved in a project that's pretty exciting, again revisiting his long history of owning the written word. So with no more ado, let's say "Hi" to Mike. Hey Mike. How's it going?

Mike: I'm doing fine, Dar. Thank you so much for asking me back after the fiasco that was the last two times.

Darwin: Well, it's funny, because you actually represent some of the more insane attempts at this podcast. My favorite still was driving around with that recorder in the coffee cup holder of my truck...

Mike: During the snow storm, and it kept failing.

Darwin: It was so awesome. Instead of me trying to stumble my way through it, why don't I have you explain what this new project is and how you were involved.

Mike: For those of you who don't know, ever since it launched, I have been the editor in chief (finally got the official title and the name on the door) of the Danish publishing house Bjooks. Bjooks was founded about five years ago, five, six years ago, by Kim Bjorn, who has been on the show, I believe, at least once.

Kim has a wonderful attitude toward the written word, because he's not only an author and a synth enthusiast, but he's a graphic designer. And his attitude toward printed word is that there's a certain level of graphic quality and graphic involvement that people tend to lose, and what he tries to do is to take ideas of electronic music, aesthetics, and education, and bring them back to a platform that is visually appealing.

People constantly ask, "Why aren't there PDF downloads?" And a PDF download misses the point. When you buy a Bjooks title, it's a 10-inch by 10-inch square format book in a beautiful hardcover. It's got high-quality paper, good-quality photographs, nicely designed diagrams, and a very careful, innovative approach to teaching whatever the subject of the book is.

And for the past four years, he has released four books: Three on Kickstarter, one he had actually gotten to the point where he could prepare it and not even announce it until it was ready to go. And those four books, for people who don't know, the first one is the book that I always wanted to write and that I'm actually really happy to have edited, because Kim wrote it better than I could. His graphical approach to it made it a better book. This book was called PUSH TURN MOVE, and it was essentially a history of user interface design in electronic music. "Why are synthesizers designed the way they are? Why do drum machines look the way they do? Why are people interested in alternative controllers?" And like most of the Bjooks titles, it's full of interviews. It's got history, this beautiful breakdown of elements of the concept of user interface.

I'm all about the man-machine interface. Always have been. You remember that first article I wrote on Usenet. Now it's 35 years ago, I think. Something insane. So talking about user interface is always something that I've been very interested in. I think that the most fascinating part of synthesis, and I'll come back to this again and again throughout this interview, is the point where the human touches the machine. That means more to me than anything else in this industry, and I've been doing it for a while now, but that's the hill I choose to die on, is the idea that these machines need to be welcoming. They need to connect with both the left and the right brain.

So this book was recently re-released. It sold out of its first printing. Excuse me - it sold out of its third or fourth printing in the first edition, and there's a second edition out there now. We've updated some information. We corrected a few of the errata that hadn't already been corrected, and we replaced one of the interviews. There was an alternative controller that never got off the ground, and we removed that and replaced it with an alternative controller that actually came out of nowhere about two years ago and is doing very well. Anyway, buy the book.

After that ... And Kim wrote that. I wrote the timeline, which is the history of user interface innovations in the back of the book. And as editor, one of the things I've had to get used to is the fact that I'm sort of the invisible hand behind the throne. Kim relies on me to make sure that his ideas come across clearly, because as eloquent as he is, English is his second language, and so he relies on me to some extent to make sure that the language flows nicely.

That's the last time I'm going to toot my horn about that, because I'm happy doing what I do, where I do it, and being editor-in-chief of this publishing company and having Kim basically say he will never do another book without me, is probably the biggest compliment I've ever received as a journalism professional.

Mike: It means more to me than writing this book. But that having been said, I've edited every one of the books except the second one. The second one, of course, was PATCH & TWEAK, which your readers will know very, very well. The book on modular synthesis, written by Kim Bjorn and Chris Meyer.

And I wish in retrospect that I had edited that book. I was not considered, and I don't mind the fact that I was not considered, because at the time my disdain for modular synthesis was a matter of public record, and I'm glad to talk about that, why I'm just not into modular. It's a beautiful book. I believe it's the most successful of our titles, and it's really, really what put us on the map.

Following that, and Kim, as I said, co-wrote that with Chris Meyer. Then was PEDAL CRUSH, which came out in 2019, which was his book with Scott Harper of KNOBs about stomp boxes. And then in 2020 of course was PATCH & TWEAK with Moog, which Kim wrote with the cooperation of Moog Music and various writers contributing to that. All of these books have interviews with makers, players, modern voices, as well as traditional voices, and a lot of instructional materials.

So the person who's interested in these topics, whether it's Eurorack or stomp boxes, or the Moog semi-modulars at the time, they are educated, they're edified. They get a good view of history and context, which we can lose if we're not careful, and it all comes in this beautifully arranged package.

And when Kim decided he wanted to do another book, he and I had a series of long talks about this. No book comes out of nowhere. Kim and I are constantly in contact, and in addition to whatever project we're working on at the moment, there are multiple projects where we're looking, "Will this work? Is this feasible? Okay. It looks like we've got some interest. How do we move forward? What's our production schedule look like?" Thank god he's better organized than I am. I just sort of chaotically handle whatever task is put in front of me, but Kim has a very detailed production and printing schedule. Really, it's pretty concrete for about the next 18 months from where we are right now, but we've got other ideas and projects that go out probably another two, three years beyond that.

One of the projects that had been kicking around was what he referred to - and I'm going to rub his nose in this, I'm going to be dining off of this for the next god knows how many years - he called it "The Synthesizer Drool Book". He wanted a book with pictures of synthesizers for people to drool over. To make a long series of discussions much shorter, I said, "Well, what's The Synthesizer Drool Book?" He said, "Synthesizer pictures, drool." I said, "Yeah, we get the drool part, but what ..."

And so he and I went back and forth and back and forth, and we eventually hammered out an idea that we felt would work. And then he sprung it on me that you wanted me to write the book. One of the things that Kim has been wanting to do for a long time is to make sure that our worldwide audience, whom we love, realizes that Bjooks has a purpose in this industry for publishing these titles, and Kim (who is one of the most modest and self-effacing people I've ever met) is worried that it's looking like a vanity press now because he's the author or coauthor of all the books. And so he made the very courageous, I think, decision to finally have someone else write a book under the Bjooks imprint. And he chose me, for which I am humbled and honored. He is in contact with so many knowledgeable, bright people with so many good ideas, the fact that he would trust me with this means a lot.

Darwin: That's cool. Now, what is the title of the book?

Mike: The book is Synth Gems 1. And one of the things we're already dealing with...

Darwin: I was going to say, that implies a lot.

Mike: Yeah. 2 is actually partly written, but we went back and forth about a lot of this stuff, and Kim deserves a big shout-out, because he was always my sanity check. He had a very good idea in his mind of what he thought the book should look like, and with that in mind, we were constantly going back and forth.

We had all kinds of titles. One of the things that people don't realize is that the title and subtitle of a book that appear on the cover are probably the single thing that Kim worries about the most, and every single one of these books, I think except Pedal Crush, went through at least a couple of possibilities. And future titles - we argue about all the time. So we had a lot of possible titles, probably went through 30 of them. And Synth Gems, you know how it is. You record a scratch vocal with the band, and then later you try to reproduce it in the ISO booth, and you can't. Synth Gems was the first one I came up with, and we set it aside and then we came back to it. It was just like, "Yeah. Synth Gems." And the "1" got added pretty early on in the process, when we realized that there was just no way we could pack everything we wanted to talk about into one book.

Darwin: Well, I think it's important, too, for people to understand that this book isn't like Peter Forrest's old "A to Z of Analog Synths" book, where it was an attempt to be a compendium of everything out there. This takes a really different approach, right?

Mike: It does. I am proud to say nothing like this book has ever been done. And the way I like to describe it is if you've ever been to an art museum, let's say ... I'll just use an example from our recent shared past. The Denver Art Museum has a traveling exhibition of a retrospective of the life of Claude Monet, right? So it's this enormous gallery full of watercolors, and sketches, and caricatures, and landscapes, and films of the guy painting.

This retrospective of the guy's life. And it doesn't have to be Monet. It could be Mondrian. It could be a discussion of industrial design in the 20th century. A look at Bauhaus Furniture. Where did Jackson Pollock come from? The design of timekeeping devices during the 19th century in the attempt to make ocean navigation safer.

But the idea is that you have one of these exhibits of these very rare, very precious things, and you get to walk through it, and you look at these things, but then you leave. And on the way out, you go through the gift shop, and the gift shop has Monet tea towels and Monet greeting cards, and Monet hot plates, but at the center of any one of these, there is always a book, and that book is called an exhibition catalog. And the idea of an exhibition catalog is it's very big, it's relatively expensive, it is not a paperback, and it contains museum-quality photographs of everything in the exhibition, along with explanatory texts. So you get to leave the exhibit and you leave behind the Water Lilies, but you take home the essence of the Water Lilies in this book, and when you're sitting at home with a cup of coffee and you're reading, you get to revisit this exhibit in some sense, to sort of once again walk in front of these paintings and look at them.

And what the Synth Gems series is, what the Gems series is, by the way. There's another hint for people who are looking for such things. Not just Synth Gems, but Gems. The idea of the Gems series is that each volume is going to be an exhibition catalog. It's going to be an exhibition catalog for an art exhibit that does not and can never exist in the real world. We created this book by photographing, at museum quality, 60 synthesizers in three different museums on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. And these machines, a lot of them were vanishingly rare. A lot of them were impossible to move, or nearly impossible to move. Some of them are iconic, but the one thing that brings them all together is that I consider them to be beautiful. I consider them to be aesthetically pleasing, and something that a person who even doesn't know anything about synthesizers can just look at the way you would look at a Bauhaus chair or a beautifully designed timepiece and say, "That is a beautiful piece of machinery."

Some of them are extremely elaborate. Some of them are very simple. Some of them are elegant. Some of them are brutalist. Some of them are sort of very high flown. Some of them are silly, genuinely silly. Because I've always been a big believer that you've got to be able to smile, you've got to be able to laugh, whenever you do any kind of art. So there are some pieces in here that people are just going to sort of throw up their hands and just laugh, but they're beautiful. The whole thing is that they're beautiful. The idea of the whole book is that we are looking at the synthesizer not only as a creator of beauty, but as a thing of beauty itself. It is not just the means by which people create art, but it is art. And no one has ever just plain looked at the synthesizer as something beautiful before.

Which is funny, because if you look back, you have a long history of people who practically fetishize these machines. They love talking about them. They love poking through the specs. They love arguing over which one's better. But if you actually go out and look at resources for people who want to look at these things, they're practically non-existent. Some of the most important of these machines, historically significant, popular, or rare and amazing, the only way you can find them is if somebody posted some blurry picture on a forum somewhere, or if you happen to have a 30-year-old copy of a print magazine, either gathering dust on a shelf, or someone has scanned it and put it up on the web. It just amazed me, once I got into this project, to discover just how unique it really is.

We always talk about people sitting and drooling at synthesizers, usually in their own collections, or enviously at other people's collections. Nobody's ever tried to take good pictures of them, and to take a picture in detail - real, loving detail - where you can read every label on every control, with closeups, and descriptions, and background. I've actually, if you've got specific questions, I have the only PDF of this book in existence. I have a high res PDF that's what was sent to the press in Copenhagen, because it was my job to go through it for the last time and do the white glove test. And so I look at this book, daily. And I look at it and I'm just ... I have finally allowed myself to be amazed, because it's unique. It's unprecedented, and that's really kind of a kick.

Darwin: So this sounds like an amazing story. And I'm sure that pulling it off represents an amazing story, but the first and most obvious question is that you say you got 60 synths that you are diving into. As the writer, was it your decision which 60 there was? Or how did you make the decisions about which ones to feature?

Mike: Okay. That is a really good question, and I will give you hopefully an accurate answer that won't take up this entire piece. Because as I say in my preface, the hardest part of the process was deciding what was going to go in the book.

Basically Kim, on one hand, he had a sort of an interest as the publisher in wanting to make sure that we hit a good audience and that we talked about things that people would be interested in. He had certain ideas of what he wanted in the book, but he quite early on handed over the reins to me and said, "You're going to make the initial list. You're going to look at this." The one guideline we started on initially was the first museum that came forward, and this was the museum actually that we had based the original concept around, was SMEM, the museum in Fribourg, in Switzerland, which is this enormous collection of instruments. And he went through the SMEM archive, which is not complete, and we jotted down some ideas, and then I looked at it, and we probably went through seven or eight iterations just of the first list, which was over 100 synthesizers. We hadn't decided how big the book was going to be. We hadn't decided how many pictures we were going to take, and so on.

And from there, we then negotiated which ones were most important for various reasons. I can say that I curated probably 90% of the book. There are a few places where Kim insisted on things that he felt were very important and worthwhile, and there were a few places where I insisted on things that I felt were very important and worthwhile, and we did not agree on them. And over the course of time, discussing them all in detail, Kim came to see the value of the ones I was talking about, and I came to see the value of the ones that he was talking about.

So what that meant was, if there was something that he chose, I was able to write about it with the same dedication and enthusiasm that I brought to all the other stuff. And if there was something that I chose, when he had it in front of him, he was able to photograph it (or guide the photography team) with an eye toward bringing out the beauty that I was able to describe to him. So there are places where he chose versus what I chose, but that doesn't mean compromise in the usual negative sense.

Darwin: Right. Well, one of the reasons I ask is because right off the bat, you said that one of the defining decision-making things was that this was looking for synthesizers that had, in some way, a compelling look. And so that implies, based on the style, or the understanding of the writer, or the decision-maker.

Mike: Yeah. Well, I curated the collection, and nothing got into the book without my approval. So if people think that my aesthetic choices are wrong, they can publish their own book.

Darwin: Good point. Great point.

Mike: The thing is, the people who assemble any art exhibition are the ones who make the decisions as to what travels and what doesn't. Now, in this case, we were also guided by the fact that places were left open, in case during the photo shoots we ran across something amazing. One thing which we had to be very careful of is that each of these three museums has a slightly different aesthetic for curation. And what that meant was a museum may have an instrument, but it might not be photographable in the way we would have liked it to be.

So there are examples. SMEM believes, for instance, that to lose any rare synthesizer, no matter what condition it's in, is a crime. So they have a very, very, very large collection, but a lot of their machines are very rare ones. And if their attitude is, "The only one we can get is broken, or physically damaged, or cosmetically damaged, we're going to have it in the collection anyway." But their archive is not completely updated to the point where we were able to research those reliably. So we were relying on photographs that Kim took during a brief tour last year, then we just did the best we could when we got there. And the photography teams were amazing. Absolutely amazing. The centerpiece of this book is the photography, and anybody who likes pictures of synthesizers, it's just a delight. It's so wonderful.

Darwin: That's awesome. So you talk about the photography team being the stars. Well, first of all, before we get there, you said that there are three synth museums that were involved in this?

Mike: Yes. Yes. There was SMEM, in Fribourg. The second one is also in Switzerland. It's about an hour and a half drive from Fribourg. It's called Synthorama. Martin Hollinger, it's in a little town called ... Well, a small city called Luterbach in Switzerland. This is a private collection. I don't know how many total items he has. I know that he has over 350 synthesizers.

This is a personal collection, which he has opened to the public. Every single machine is in immaculate condition. Every single machine works. Every single machine is hooked up. Every single machine has a place where you can plug in headphones.

Darwin: Oh, wow. That's amazing.

Mike: Yeah. Think about that and tremble. It's extraordinary. SMEM is building an interactive space; what they have is a rotating collection of a small number of synths from their archive. But with very few exceptions, everything in Synthorama is playable, and yeah, it's an amazing facility.

And then of course, the third one, which I think will probably be more familiar to listeners than the others, is EMEAPP, the Electronic Music Education and Preservation Project. I always want to get that right. It's in a space near Philadelphia, and it also has a very large collection, including some important historical rarities. And I have to give a shout out right now to the EMEAPP team for their photography. Kim was present in Switzerland with Peter Maher, who did the photographs at SMEM and Synthorama. Kim has experience doing this kind of photography before as a graphic designer, and because he was there and because he had a laptop running Photoshop, they were able to take pictures, look at them, determine what would work, what wouldn't, move things, re-angle things, relight things. So the process was time consuming, but it was very efficient.

But because of the pandemic, neither Kim nor I could get to Philadelphia to supervise the photograph sessions at EMEAPP. I have to say, the people at EMEAPP, Drew Raison and his team were just ... They were endlessly patient. Because it took them a few iterations to get things to the point where we wanted them to be. And even though they photographed - I guess probably about 15, 12 to 15 of the synthesizers, 20% to 25%, they probably put in 90% of the sweat when it came to getting things done, just because they couldn't get it perfect on the first shot because Kim wasn't there to guide them.

And the process there, it was heroic. Peter has this sort of a natural, artless artistry. He makes it look easy to get these gorgeous pictures. The lighting, the angles, the detail. It's a delight. And the guys at EMEAPP, especially once they got to see some early shots of Peter's, they really went a long way to try to get there. And the work they produced in the end was stellar.

Darwin: So obviously, words go along with the photos, and words, sounds like, was your business. I'm going to suggest to everybody that you just get this book, because it's an important piece of work, but in preparation for getting the book... Tell us a little bit about what it is that you wanted to highlight in each of these machines in order to, again, to try and follow the exhibition guide thing. Where to me, at least in my experience, exhibition guides are great, because not only do I take part of the experience home, but it gives me a chance to dive deeper than I was able to when I was at the location, right?

Mike: Precisely. And that is exactly what we have in mind. One of the things that we guide ourselves with whenever we do a Bjooks title is we have sort of ... And this is, if you've ever done public relations or marketing, you understand where they have a target user and they make up a name. They give him or her a nickname, and they describe what this person is like, and what they look for, et cetera. And for this book, we had three people. We had the person who was our primary worry through the first four books, which is somebody who is reasonably knowledgeable, who comes to the book with some background, who has an enthusiasm to learn, but for whom English is not a first language. That's really, really important. Because when you write, you try to write in a comfortable tone, but if you slide into idioms, or examples of things that only an American would understand, then you lose your reader. So all of these books have to strike a balance between a worldwide appeal and focus, and a sort of lively text that doesn't feel dry.

For this book, we added two other people. One of them was the art gallery visitor. The person who comes to the art gallery might not know anything about Mondrian or clocks, and he's almost certainly not going to know anything about synthesizers. So as you say, as an exhibition catalog, this book is designed to bring this esoteric world that you and I ... The fish doesn't know he's in water, and you and I have been living in this world for decades.

This book forces me to stop and think about the person who looks at a synthesizer and goes, "That's really pretty. I wonder what it does." And so the book begins with a six-page introduction to the basics of synthesis.

In six pages, we bring across the basic structural elements of the traditional synthesizer, and then we follow up on those terms with a fairly extensive glossary in the back of the book. It's written in a very introductory, collegial tone, so that people are not scared away. And what that allows you to do is you can look at the pictures, you can read the accompanying texts. If there's something that eludes you, something that you're not sure about, you can go and brush up, and then go right back to where you were.

The third person that we are keeping in mind is the synth nerd, because a lot of the people who are going to be the existing audience for this book are synth nerds. These are people who have always wanted a book like this, and therefore it was important to get the information across and to have enough depth to keep the synth nerds occupied without them feeling like they were being talked down to. It's a very touchy balancing act, and I'm hoping I pulled it off reasonably well.

Darwin: It sounds like you and Kim work really closely together to bring this together. What is the...

Mike: Let me address one thing, where I think you're going, and if not, we'll circle back.

I've talked about the fact that all three museums have a sort of a visual guide, a tour at the end. We also have other resources, like other museums around the world that have at least some synthesizers in them, as well as resources like books, videos, YouTube channels, things that I looked at and vetted and determined were good for a beginner or a more advanced person, and a list of ways for people to explore some of these sounds in software, just in case you wanted to get your hands a little dirty.

The center of the book is for each synthesizer, we have a discussion that goes around the photographs. We talk about the history, the origins, the motivations. We talk about the people involved. Sometimes we talk about the back and forth, the discussion, where feasible. And then we talk about the legacy of the machine, where feasible.

For the more famous devices, it's relatively easy to list a bunch of people who have played them, and a bunch of famous songs that have them. But when you're talking about a machine that maybe 20 were built, it's a little trickier. So the idea there is just that if you've never seen one of these machines before, you look at it and you go, "Oh, this is really neat. Let me learn about it." And if you're one of these synth geeks, you're going to see stuff in this book - I guarantee you are going to see stuff in this book that at first blush you will think is wrong. Because one of the things about this research process is my determination that Sturgeon's Law - and then some - applies to information about synthesizers on the internet. Most of it is wrong, either innocently, or out of an attempt for people to try to show that they were knowledgeable when they had no business trying to do so.

And what you'll get is, you'll get somebody will say something because they're making a guess. That comment will be taken out of context somewhere else. The somewhere else is maybe a little more authoritative. Before you know it, it's circulated around the internet. It's in 15 different places, and everybody assumes it's gospel. And when you go all the way back to the primary sources, you discover that it was wrong.

Darwin: So what's one example? I'm sure the book is filled, but what is going to be one of those early examples that people are going to run into and say, "That doesn't seem right"?

Mike: A really good example of a machine that people get really badly wrong is the Korg PS series, the PS 3100, 3200, 3300. We devote probably the most page space to those three synthesizers of anything in the book.

Darwin: Really?

Mike: Yes. Not only did we get museum quality pictures of all three of them, including what may be the only color portrait of the entire family ever taken in history, but we were able to get way into the design of these instruments. And one of the things that people love to argue about is whether or not the PS series are really polyphonic synthesizers. Because they use divide down oscillators, the initial idea is always, "Well, that's not real polyphony." Polyphony, and what constitutes polyphony, is a big source of argument in the world of people who study the history of electronic instruments.

Darwin: Sure is. Yeah.

Mike: For one reason or another, there are a fair number of machines on the list. We had, by the way, about 75 machines in mind when we went, and we did get photographs of some of the ones that are going to have to wait until Volume Two. But of these machines, a fair number of them are divide down based machines to provide multiple notes without necessarily multiple articulation. And we talk about that actually in the book. In the introduction to the synthesizer, we discuss - we have an entire page devoted to polyphony and what it means.

The reason I'm bringing that up now is because the PS series, a fair number of people contest whether they're really polyphonic. And we go into the schematics. We go all the way to the guts of these instruments to get an answer to that question, and it's presented. And it's not presented as a, "A ha ha, told you so." There's none of that in this book, because it doesn't mean anything to the person visiting the art gallery.

Darwin: Right. Of course.

Mike: But this book, if all goes well, this book will be authoritative. This book will be a reference. This book will be something that someone will pull down off their shelf, if they see an argument on the internet, and they will say, "Synth Gems 1 says this." And because of that, the research was a real ... I mean, that's a book in and of itself, what I went through just to make sure that hopefully all, but I know I'll have missed a couple of things, to make sure that as much of the information in the book was as correct and primarily sourced as possible, was the work of months. In some cases, we were able to actually communicate with the person who designed the synthesizer. A fair number of them.

So we have another example: the Steiner-Parker Synthacon. The front panel runs from right to left instead of left to right. And everybody knows, quote-unquote, that Nyle Steiner did that just to be different. Well, that's not true. I talked to Nyle about it, and he said that the front panel was actually laid out for performability. Because the Synthacon does not have any left-hand controls per se, the stuff that the artist was more likely to reach for with his left hand while playing with the right hand is grouped on the left side of the machine. And the stuff like oscillator modulation is grouped over on the right, because you never reach for it.

Darwin: Right. Interesting.

Mike: And I may have said that backwards. The performability stuff, like pitch bend, and portamento, and so forth is over on the left, and the oscillator stuff is over on the right. And it has nothing to do with just trying to be different. There was a motivation behind this.

Darwin: Well, that makes a lot of sense because Nyle is also, he always was very thoughtful about the performability of everything he did.

Mike: Yup. And a wonderful fellow, by the way. I wish I had had a chance to talk to him more. For some of these people, we communicated via email. For some of these people, I was actually able to talk with them. And I will treasure those conversations.

One of the pieces in the book is the Fairlight. There's a ton of misinformation about the Fairlight out there. And I went all the way back. I talked to Peter Vogel and Kim Ryrie. Peter and I exchanged a number of emails, and he actually reviewed the text. By the way, all of these people that were involved reviewed the text at the end, so this was really refereed. Peter made some corrections and pointed out some bits and pieces. Kim, I spent an hour on the phone with Kim. Kim is amazing. The fact that he would take time out of what he's doing ... Unlike Peter, he's not in the musical instrument business anymore, but he's still doing stuff with fairly powerful digital systems, and he just took time off after dinner to chat with me for over an hour and talk about the history of this stuff and where it came from. And the fact that there are stories which are told about the Fairlight that even he didn't know.

It's refreshing. The classic story, depending on who you talk to. The very first sample, Peter says it's one thing, and Kim says it's another. They agree on the order in which things happened, and they agree that both things happened, but as to which was considered the first sample is up for grabs. And we talk about that in the book.

Darwin: That's hilarious. That's amazing. So, man, already we've kind of used up our time, but before I let you go, I would be remiss if I didn't ask for you to reveal some of your personal favorites. Maybe what was the favorite piece for you to just see in terms of the photography and stuff like that, as well as what was the machine that was most interesting to research?

Mike: Okay. Well, in terms of visual appeal, which was also one of the most interesting ones to research - because there is so much legend and so little fact - was the Yamaha GX-1. They have a working GX-1 at EMEAPP that we were able to photograph for this book. We have color spreads. We have closeups. There is photography of this machine that does not exist anywhere. And the fact is, the more you know about that machine, where it came from, the context in which it was launched, what it was designed for, and what it led to, you realize that this machine, it wasn't so much a precursor to great things as it was a "moment".

There was nothing like the GX-1 before or since. Everybody talks about the CS-80 and how, "Yes, the CS-80 is basically a dumbed down GX-1." Oh, no it isn't. The GX-1 is its own beast. It is an extraordinary instrument that, in my opinion, given modern industry trends, and technology, and economics, literally could not be built today. Literally could not be built. It's got functions that didn't show up in other synthesizers for years or decades, because we need microprocessors. So many things that we take for granted are microprocessor-based. This thing is an 18-voice polyphonic synthesizer with programmability that doesn't have a single microcontroller chip in it, as far as I recall, and that's off the top of my head. I'd have to go back and look. My referee will hear this interview and probably smack me for it.

It's just, it's discrete circuitry. It's cables in bundles that are as thick as your wrist. It's switches and designs that are aesthetically pleasing down to the tiniest detail. And it's all in this machine that weighs, if you add on the console, the seat, the pedals, and the speaker systems, the bespoke speaker systems designed for it, it's over a half a ton of machinery. And if you tilt it more than about 10 degrees when you move it, you will destroy it, because there's just too many delicate things plugged in in ways where gravity is supposed to work in one direction. And so even moving one of these machines involves the most unbelievable acrobatics. And there's a rather special story to the one at EMEAPP. There are special stories to a lot of these. Very few synthesizers have folklore like the GX-1. And we recall some of the more famous stories.

Darwin: That's amazing. And so that sounds like that was a favorite both of what you saw and the research behind it.

Mike: Yup.

Darwin: One last question, again, a similar question. What is, of the things that are in the book, what represents sort of the most, I'll use the word "ridiculous," but maybe the thing that just makes you shake your head.

Mike: That would be telling.

Darwin: Oh, no.

Mike: Oh god. There were a few. There are a few in there where you just, you're left scratching your head and going, "Oh, really?" Oh, by the way, all of the synthesists and engineers and people, most of them asked for a partial list, and I would go down the list, and every single person would pick at least one and go, "Huh? Really? What?" And it was always different. And it was always different. Each person has different aesthetics.

Darwin: Right.

Mike: But if I were to pick one that was probably the most universal, where people just scratch their heads, it would probably be the Casio VL-Tone. You know, little tiny calculator with a built-in ... Here's a little bit of trivia for you. You know the percussion synthesizer in there?

Darwin: Right.

Mike: Those three sounds were named Pi, Po, and Sha, by the engineering team at Casio. And Pi and Po are a C one octave apart, and that sound has appeared ... I didn't get a final number, but it's in dozens of top 40 hits. People can make fun of the VL-Tone all they want, but it's everywhere. And yeah, we have three of them in the book. We have the VL-1, the VL-2, and the VL-5. And we talk about the fact that it's an analog synth, that the calculator's digital, but the sound path is completely analog.

Darwin: So cool.

Mike: So that's probably going to be the one that will have the most people scratching their heads. But the GX-1 is only one of many where I just had to shake my head in admiration. There are machines in here that are just, the more you know about them, the more in awe you are of the people who created them. And there's a list of acknowledgements of all the people who contributed to this book.

I do, before we go, want to make special mention of the editors. We had four people editing this book. Technically five, if you include Kim. Colin Russell is a young man who is now teaching at Berklee. He is a educator and an electronic musician. People who are into the Eurorack world would know him as one of the designers of the stuff that comes from Instruo.

He was, until recently, working at Control Voltage in Portland, Oregon, before he took this position to teach at Berkeley. He was young and enthusiastic and he brought a really nice perspective to the book. Also parenthetically, the book will look as good as it does because of the unstinting copy editing of Diana Smithers, who copy edited this book under very difficult circumstances and deserves a medal for the work she did. As I said, Kim did some. But then there were three other people. And I can't end this piece without talking about each one, if you'll give me the moment.

First and foremost is Chris Meyer. There are a lot of people in this industry that I collegialy respect as music technology journalists. There are a very few that I admire. Of the ones that I would consider mentors, after my 30-odd years of doing this, maybe three come to mind, and Chris is the top of the list. He is an extraordinary, extraordinary gentlemen who has incredible clarity of vision. And he held my feet to the fire through this entire process, and is responsible perhaps more than anyone else for the level of excellence that's in this book. He deserves so much kudos. And if people are wondering why he's in the book, he's the guy who was on the design team that built at least one of them. He's got the track record. He's made his bones.

Secondly, for a lot of the hands-on research for the machines that are extremely rare, where it's either extremely difficult or impossible to reach out to the people who designed them, I relied greatly on Gordon Reid. Gordon lives in the UK. He has been writing for Sound on Sound Magazine for decades. He is not a member of their editorial staff, but he has devoted his life to a detailed engineering level understanding of probably hundreds of synthesizers. He was very gracious with his time and his patience, and he was always able to correct me on under circumstances where I was working with something that was rare and didn't always have good information at hand, but he was able to put his hands on the machine, talk about what was under the hood. And the most obvious one there is the Yamaha GX-1. He's one of the two people I know, private citizens, who own one in working order and have one in their house. You're not going to get any better than that in terms of someone telling you about how something works.

Darwin: Right.

Mike: And last but not least, because this is an educational book, and because clarity of pedagogy is important, I worked very with Marc Doty. Marc is well-known for his YouTube channel, Automatic Gainsay. He is also well-known, usually with amusement, as somebody who fights over the definition of polyphony. He also happens to have more clarity of thought when it comes to what goes into the theory behind these machines than pretty much anybody I know. We would argue a lot of the concepts that were being brought across in this book. How we explain things in the glossary. How the synthesizer introduction was organized. He got into the weeds on fact checking on some of the instruments.

We had other people who would pop in. Paul Nagel is another name I should mention. But Marc, he probably still disagrees with me on stuff, and he's one of the few people in this industry who is as opinionated and as loud as I am, and our discussions were epic. At least at one point, my family actually came downstairs to make sure that I wasn't having an aneurysm during one of our more spirited discussions, but it all resulted in a level of clarity that I could only dream of.

And it takes a village. Tim for the oversight. Peter Maher, and the people at EMEAPP for the photographs. Drew Raison and Martin Hollinger and the folks at SMEM. Natasha Bondo Bjorn, Kim's daughter, who did a lot of the graphic underlay and some of the overall framing of the book. Diana and all the editors. Without them, this book would be not a tenth of the work of art that I'm really hoping people find it.

Darwin: So what is the availability of the book?

Mike: If all has gone well, as of when this piece is aired, the book will already be available for order from resellers like Thomann in Europe, and it will be about three weeks away from being available in the United States. I do not know if pre-orders will be happening at that time. The book will be available at We encourage people, however, to patronize our resellers where feasible.

Darwin: Well, Mike, I want to thank you so much for taking the time, filling in some of the curiousness I have about the book. I am such a fan of the Bjooks stuff, and I actually was honored to be invited to be in that first book. I still need to pick up some of the other ones, but...-

Mike: It's okay. It's an expensive habit.

Darwin: It is. No doubt.

Mike: They're beautiful books.

Darwin: They are. They're amazing.

Mike: They're made with an eye toward quality. Thank you very much for having me on. You know it's always a pleasure. For those of you who haven't listened, Darwin and I have been friends for 30 years, and he puts up with a great deal from me that he doesn't put up with from other people, and I'm grateful for that as well.

I'm going to leave people with one last thing. The very first sentence of my preface, which is also, I wanted it originally on the frontice piece of the book, even before the foreword, by Vince Clarke. Woo-hoo. Vince actually took time out to write a really nice forward, and people know him from Erasure, and as one of the founders of Depeche Mode, but he's also a real synth enthusiast. He's a collector, and he really understands the theory behind a lot of these things. So it was great to have him. But even before that, I wanted to have on the frontice piece one sentence, and we weren't able to do it, but I was able to get it into the preface. And this is something I'm going to keep coming back to again and again. "This is a book about beauty."

Darwin: Awesome. Well, thank you. Thank you so much for your time. I really do appreciate it, and have a great day.

Mike: Very happy.

Copyright 2021 by Darwin Grosse. All right reserved.