Synthtopia

Cynthia Webster: Designing Modular Analog Synthesizers

Cynthia Webster is the synthesist and designer behind Cyndustries, a company that makes modular analog synthesizers. She recently shared her thoughts with Synthtopia about a variety of topics, including the analog vs. digital debate, Nietzsche, women in electronic music, the mystery of “wishbone127”  and even banana envy.

Webster is an electronic music veteran. In high school, Webster bought an ARP 2600, and after graduating, she attended the Boston School of Electronic Music and studied with Jim Michmerhuizen, author of the classic ARP 2600 User’s Manual. There she discovered ElectroNotes and electronics and dove into schematics and circuit boards.

In the seventies, Webster founded Synapse, an electronic music magazine. During this time, she continued her study of electronic music in the synthesizer labs at San Francisco State University and Mills College. She also performed frequently, jamming with friends in the electronic music community, and performing with Triode, a synth band. They performed “live sound sculpture” with modulars in the San Francisco Bay Area, and headlined the Los Angeles Electronic Music Festival.

Webster took a detour in the eighties and worked as a cinematographer in Hollywood. After a twenty-year hiatus, Webster returned her focus to electronic music and founded Cyndustries, where she presently builds custom Modcan-compatible synthesizer modules.

Synthtopia asked Webster recently about analog synthesis, her company and her background:

Synthtopia: What got you interested in electronic music, Cynthia?

Cynthia Webster: I heard “Lucky Man” by Emerson, Lake and Palmer on the radio and was instantly hooked!

In a quest for, “whatever it was that was making those wonderful sounds”, I learned of Wendy Carlos’s efforts and those of others, and soon found myself hanging around the halls of Cal Arts, trying to get a closer look at the mighty Buchla systems there. Miraculously, I actually got some time on the systems, (considering that I wasn’t even a student there!) and made several friends in the process. Here I was, still in my senior year in High School, and all my friends were much older composition students at Cal Arts who were building the first Serges and studying with Mort.

For my age I quickly developed quite an academic taste in music listening to the likes of Subotnick, Xenakis, Ussachevsky, and Stockhausen.

In ’75 or so UCLA had a two-day lecture by Danlee Mitchell on Harry Partch culminating in an evening performance of “The Bewitched”. Between the lecture and the performance we were actually allowed up on stage to see Partch’s fascinating 43 tone-to-the-octave instruments up-close, and encouraged to fondle and play them. I was electrified with the notion of creating a synthesizer in this microtonal scale and possibly jamming or performing in his orchestra. Ok, I was a silly teenager! I kept wondering “Where is Mr. Partch?” and hoped to speak with him, but was crushed to find that he had already passed away.

Synthtopia: In your career, you’ve performed as a musician, founded a magazine, worked as a Hollywood cinematographer, and now you’re designing and building analog synth modules. What has made you want to do so many different things?

Cynthia Webster: I guess that is just my nature. I am a workaholic and don’t like doing anything half-baked. If you’re going to do something, then get on with it and DO something!

I’ve had other hobbies and professions such as acting, DVD Authoring, scuba diving, and 1,000-yard 50-caliber target shooting. Most whatever I get involved in requires an intense focus, and I like it like that.

There are groups of people who go out in the desert launching homemade liquid fuel rockets. They can be quite expensive and many are ten or twenty-feet high. That’s the kind of thing that appeals to me, because there is no room for screw ups.

Synthtopia: What led you to want to start Cyndustries?

I never planned it. Years ago, I’d started with miniphone jacks on an ARP 2600, but all my friends were using bananas and I instantly saw the advantages. I guess that you could say I had banana envy!

About the same time the economy went bust several years ago, the majority of the DVD pressing plants and authoring facilities went off shore to build manufacturing plants overseas. I ‘d been working for the studios in DVD menu design and navigation with a specialization in foreign menu translations. If you ever see any of the James Bond movies in Vietnamese, Svenska, or Portuguese, I did those menu graphics!

Suddenly I was out of work, so I thought for a while about what it would be that would make me most happy to do, and looked-in on what was happening lately in modular synthesis and I happily dove right in.

After looking at all that was available, I chose to buy a Modcan system, not only for it’s wide range of available modules and very high quality, but also because it struck me as the ideal combination of classical East Coast (ARP Moog Aries Polyfusion) type thinking, and the psychedelic far-out West Coast (Buchla and Serge) experimental philosophies. These are of course terribly broad generalizations, however I find these stereotypes to be pretty close to reality, man.

Soon I was overflowing with designs for new modules, and started looking into just what it might take to make myself some of them. Other modular enthusiasts started asking me to make some for them as well and the rest is history!

I guess you could say that it kinda’ snowballed into what it is today. We are a lean mean research and development machine!

Synthtopia: Everything’s been going digital for 20 years. Why analog?

Cynthia Webster: Digital has spent the past 20 years approximating analog, and they’re still not there!

Digital has some wonderful properties of it’s own, don’t knock it! If I had chosen to make programmable keyboard synths with lots of pre-programmed sounds, I very might have gone digital. I’m most interested in infinite possibilities in both system architecture, as well as the positions between all of those encoder knob positions, and that still requires analog circuitry to do best.

Some might assert that the human hand is not capable of finer resolutions than 256 or 1,024 steps in a 300 degree arc of knob rotation. I really don’t know, just that most such instruments have a different overall feel to my hands and especially to my ears.

To do digital right, manufacturers should spend a lot of money everywhere, throughout the machines, with A-to-D converters and D-to-A converters of the ridiculously highest resolution, everywhere, to offer the greatest variety of subtlety to their sounds. Perhaps it is because most manufacturers today don’t spend that kind of money on their products, because they have to answer to committees in boardrooms and their share holders?

I don’t want to belabor digital versus analog, as some machines such as the EDP Wasp are made mainly of the most ultra ultra low resolution logic circuits, and I love their nasty raw sounds! Don’t hold me to any of this, as my own electronic knowledge is like a great Swiss cheese…tasty, but full of holes! Whatever works for each individual artist is obviously best.

I also like to get away from sitting at the computer screen for hours each day!

To me, it is the human knob and patch cord interface that makes me happiest, I’ll pitch a whole machine into the trash before dealing with tiny liquid crystal menus, though with it’s tiny buttons and tiny screen, it’s kind of a wonder that I still have a cell phone!

Synthtopia: Do you think you bring an alternate perspective, as a woman, to a world of electronic music that’s largely male?

Cynthia Webster: Well, I feel I have a highly tuned intuition and often it guides me far better than theory alone!

Actually, the majority of my friends are male, just don’t ask me anything about competitive sports, or likely you’ll just get a blank stare! Theoretically, creativity should be genderless right?

My observations are that in our society women are generally discouraged from things technical, it is was getting better for some time, but its seems lately the pendulum is swinging back the other way. Kind of scary…

Synthtopia: Modular synths seem to reflect a lot of the personality of their designers. Buchlas are known for encouraging experimentation, while Moogs are known for meeting the needs of more traditional musical approaches. Do you think that your line of modules has this sort of personality, and if so, how would you describe it?

Cynthia Webster: In a word, my modules must be fun! (and thus be useful, and inspire creativity!)

New capabilities and new parameters of control are important to me. I also strive for an elegance of design, and have found that in some rare circumstances it can actually be the removal of excess that sets a design apart, and renders it as classic.

I approach module design as if modular synthesis and analog development had never stopped.

In a way it was big corporations moving-in to the arena and their “dumbing down” of the equipment that hurt us synthesist most. This has a lot to do with why I jumped into the mix!

I do a lot of custom modules for customers, this and new module development keeps the game exciting and fresh for me instead of making the same widget over and over day after day.

It is an interesting balance as while innovating, one has to be consistant and keep quality high shipping orders to customers in as timely a fashion as possible. This can be a challenge!

Synthtopia: Your module descriptions are a blast to read, and your selection of modules seems very creative, too. How much does Cyndustries reflect your personality and values?

Cynthia Webster: A lot! No board rooms and no “design by committee” here!

Also, I am a Synthesist first and foremost, and a designer and manufacturer second. I feel that this allows each module to represent a clear vision of someone who spends most every waking hour each day trying to build us all better mousetraps!

Many run their business by spread-sheet and are motivated by logic and profits. I create modules out of sheer love of the medium and the tools instead! My philosophy is often to “Zig”, while all the others “Zag” as in, “no one in their right mind would go to all of this trouble for that one stinking feature…”which is precisely why I’ll do it!

While we’re discussing philosophies , If I say I will do something, I do it. It may take some time for me to get there, but I always do what I promise. That is one of my ways of doing business, as well as “a deal is a deal”, no baloney!

Synthtopia: How do you go about deciding on and creating new modules for Cyndustries?

Cynthia Webster: An old Japanese woman that I know has a Ouija board, and in the afternoons we will drink tea and divine for new module designs together in the sunset… Kidding!

It can be a variety of things actually, It all starts with keeping one’s radar at full awareness on all hailing frequencies. Sometimes inspiration is in the form of new semiconductor announcements where a subcomponent with new capabilities suggests things not possible before.

Other times it may be a conversation read on one of the boards, a customer request, or I may approach something just because I know that it is so absurd that any logical businessman would never attempt such financial folly! Ideas just come to me, and I am fortunate to collaborate regularly on new design ideas with some of the smartest engineers in the business! (A huge Thank You to you all!)

It is also important to experiment all the time, like hooking up a pair of hydrophones backwards to see if you can hear music underwater at the bottom of your swimming pool)

A lot of folks have been writing about the beauty of finite instruments lately, and I totally agree.

Wasn’t it Nietzsche who said, “without limitation, there is no art?” the interpretation here is that a violin sounds as wonderful as it does partly because it is not also trying to sound like a tuba. It is the restrictions of the sound cavity, and the unique shape, that give it it’s characteristic sound.

Similarly, a Minimoog is a classic because of what it doesn’t offer, as well as what it does.

Recently, I’ve heard this philosophy applied towards modular systems, that some are somehow more worthy or desirable because of their limitations as closed systems. I feel that this is quite silly, as the whole point of modulars is to be, well, modular, and thus allow any possible combination of elements that the user sees fit for their particular style or purpose.

You can rest assured that we will continue to expand the horizons of your investment and artistic options with great zeal!

Synthtopia: What’s the best part of your job?

Cynthia Webster: Boxing modules and shipping them to happy customers!

Listening to all the CDs that customers send-in of music they’ve made with our gear.

Synthtopia: What’s the worst part?

Cynthia Webster: Unexpected production set-backs that slow down shipping cycles… Ugh! Also inquiries from customers with strange e-mail names like “wishbone127” who ask about their orders, but provide absolutely no other information, so we have to grind production to a stop and spend the afternoon playing Sherlock Holmes trying to figure out who they are!

Synthtopia: I guess “wishbone127” can consider himself warned! So, what’s in store for the future for Cyndustries?

Cynthia Webster: We have already made a move to announce new products much closer to their actual shipping dates. I never apprenticed to anyone in the manufacturing business and have learned many lessons the hard way over the past few years, that doing things right simply takes far more time than one would ever imagine!

We plan to complete orders with more efficiency in a timely manner by slowly shifting the business to where there is completed stock of every item already on the shelves, instead of the present “Build-to-Order and ship several weeks later” paradigm. This shift is ongoing and will take many months, though.

Several totally new Top Secret module concepts are already in the works here that are going to Rock-Your-World, Baby! You won’t be disappointed… so Lookout!

Synthtopia: Any plans to do modules or other items physically compatible with other formats, such as MOTM, in the future?

Cynthia Webster: Oh, I might have a surprise or two up my sleeve someday, but I don’t plan to abandon the Modcan Community and they will always get the latest designs long before any other format would.

I see Modcan as the premiere line of what is available, and every move that we make will support that belief. Every time you see the very coolest of the coolest stuff available only in our format, think to yourself, “damn, I shoulda’ bought a Modcan!”

Synthtopia: What are some of your interests outside of electronic music?

Cynthia Webster: Bunny rabbits, (I adore bunnies!) nature hikes, women’s issues, animation, cooking, sailing, and lately… sleep, ’cause I never get any!

Synthtopia: What do you hope to accomplish with Cyndustries?

Cynthia Webster: To make the finest and most thought provoking modular tools available anywhere and to see them enjoyed immensly by those who use them.

Synthtopia: Thanks, Cynthia, for sharing your thoughts with Synthtopia!

Cynthia Webster: Thank you for this opportunity to chat!

 


Additional information about Cynthia Webster:

Personal Link: http://www.cyndustries.com/info_1.cfm

Music link: http://www.cyndustries.com/music.cfm

Favorite musical artists or recordings: Eno, Orbital, ELP, Left Field, Segovia, Peter Gabriel, Pink Floyd, Harry Partch, Groove Armada, classical Indian music, Wendy Carlos, King Crimson, and The Cardigans to name a few. Crimson’s “Lark’s Toungues in Aspic” and Carlos’s “Timesteps” are two of my most favorite pieces, (how can I not mention “Supper’s Ready” by Genesis?)