In 1974 thirteen years old kid Mark Ellis was taken to a concert by Tangerine Dream in England. Mark was especially fascinated by the large machines full of buttons, knobs and flashing lights. Tangerine Dream were one of the few bands that took their modular synthesizers on the road. Such an apparatus consists of a large number of modules, like voltage controlled oscillators (VCO), voltage controlled filters (VCF), envelope generators, low frequency oscillators (LFO), ring modulators, and so on. Each module has one or more inputs and an output. By connecting the output from one module with the input of another via a patch cable they start interacting and this provides the synthesizer its enormous possibilities. Creating a patch is time consuming, and once it's gone, it's almost impossible to restore it similarly. Because of the cost most modular synthesizers were used in studios, universities and research centres. Just a handful of artists could afford to have one of their own.
A few years later Mark Ellis made his appearance in music. He soon discovered that his talents and interests were working in the studio. His first job in a studio gave him the nickname Flood, because he had to bring the tea and he did this even more often than asked. He kept on working with this nickname and gained a good reputation as a producer and engineer while working for U2, Depeche Mode, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds and P.J. Harvey, amongst others.
During the eighties synthesizers became digital and since the new synths had MIDI and could process more complex wave forms by using samples, the old analogue gear was rapidly replaced. Digital was the future and analogue was considered to be old-fashioned. The modular synthesizers were seen as dinosaurs on the verge of extinction. However, a small group of people took the opportunity to buy one for little money and thus save the synths from the scrap heap, because these people still saw them as relevant.
Flood teamed up with Dave Bessel, Gary Stout and Ed Biller, the former guitarist and keyboard player from The Psychedelic Furs, to form Node. With Node they wanted to prove that the modular synthesizers have its own quality and still had a reason to exist. In 1995 they recorded their first eponymous album. Where Brian Enno once performed at an airport, Node did a performance at Paddington Station in London, where they were playing their extensive gear in the middle of surprised commuters.
The digital synthesizer never fully ousted the analogue ones. On the contrary, there are now manufacturers, including Moog and Korg, who bring out new analogue synthesizers. According to some people analogue equipment sounds better, but the main reason is the interface. To create a sound on a digital synth you have to find your way through menus to find the correct parameter to change it. Many musicians work intuitively. They don't know which sound they're looking for, but they know when they've found it. Turning on knobs just works far better for that. Surprisingly modular synthesizers either regained popularity in a new incarnation. The German engineer Dieter Doepfer invented what would later become known as the Eurorack format. The modules are much smaller using more modern technology, both analogue and digital. This makes the machine much more stable and more reliable. The modules are made by many different manufacturers, each bringing in their own ideas.
Since the machine is much smaller and lighter it's portable, although it can be made as big as you want. It can be compiled any way you like. You can start with a few modules and expand them later on. And above all it's much cheaper. Modular synthesizers are now much more popular than in the late sixties. Many of the new users don't recode music on it, but they just have it for fun. They meet up with other people via online forums and exchange ideas. It has become a real subculture. Modular synthesizers are magical machines, almost like spaceships, with all the knobs and flashing lights. It's a kind of time machine in which presence we feel like a thirteen year old kid again. Just like Mark Ellis... Owing one is like a dream come true.
And so, nineteen years after their first album Mark Ellis and Node are back with their second one. Gary Stout is no longer involved; he's replaced by Mel Wesson. Node 2 is again a tribute to the modular synthesizer and the Berlin School of electronic music. It's clearly inspired by Tangerine Dream in the classic line-up of Edgar Froese, Chris Franke and Peter Baumann, the era of classic albums like Phaedra (1974) and especially Rubycon (1975). But they take it right into the 21st century. There's much depth in the sound, but the tracks are shorter: between five and eleven minutes. Where Tangerine Dream sometimes relied a bit too much upon the sequencer, Node vary the sequences. There's never a dull moment.
For people who are interested in the history of the modular synthesizer I would like to recommend the DVD I Dream Of Wires. It also features some footages of the Paddington Station performance from Node. More info can be found at http://www.science-with-synthesizers.com/.
****+ Erik Gibbels (edited by Peter Willemsen)
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