Electronic Music Pioneers

Electronic Music Pioneers, a book by Ben Kettlewell, is a popular history of electronic music. Kettlewell covers the highlights of recent electronic music history, and does it in an easy-to-read fashion.

The book features interviews with many of the artists and synth designers that have been influential in shaping the world of popular electronica in the last thirty years. Some of the highlights are discussions of the work of Dr. Robert Moog, the work of Wendy Carlos, Keith Emerson and Jan Hammer,  and an interview with Klaus Schulze.

By combining coverage of both inventors and musicians, Kettlewell effectively covers the most important events and music in the last few decades of electronic music.

Kettlewell is a writer, musician and hosts a public radio show, Imaginary Visions. As a result of the many hats he wears, he brings a broad understanding of electronic music history to the book, along with an open mind to different styles.

If there’s a weakness to the book, it’s that it tries to cover a lot of territory in a relatively small book. As a result, many of topics are covered without a great deal of depth. In addition, the book emphasizes keyboard-based electronic music over other types.

Electronic Music Pioneers is a fun read and a worthwhile addition to your electronica library.

Mark Prendergast – The Ambient Century: From Mahler to Moby – The Evolution in Sound in the Electronic Age

This sprawling book traces the development of ambient music over the past 100 years, from composers like Mahler and Satie, to current musicians like Moby and Aphex Twin. It covers a huge amount of territory, and serves as an easy introduction to many of the significant composers and musicians of the twentieth century.

The Ambient Century: From Mahler to Trance – The Evolution of Sound in the Electronic Age uses the term “ambient” music much more freely than common usage. To author Mark Prendergast, ambient music is interesting music of the twentieth century. He notes two significant aspects of it: the tendency to “deconstruct” the forms of Western music; and the influence of recording technology. Prendergast includes everything but the kitchen sink under this umbrella. Schoenberg and Webern, Satie, Raymond Scott, Morton Subotnick, Joe Meek, Bob Dylan, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Yes, Mike Oldfield, Donna Summer, and the Chemical Brothers are just a few of the artists that are included.

The book starts with a Forward by Brian Eno. Eno’s essay is short and not his best, but his essay serves as an introduction to some of the ideas and music covered in the book.

The book is divided into four main parts:

  • Book I: The Electronic Landscape
    This section covers the broadest timeframe, starting with Mahler, Satie and Debussy and continuing to almost the end of the twentieth century. The theme of this section is really less about the development of electronic music, and more just an overview of composers that Prendergast feels are significant in this era. For readers with a weak understanding of classical Western music of the twentieth century, this section hits some of the highlights. It does cover the development of electronic musical instruments. While it doesn’t delve very deeply into either electronic instruments of the musicians that used them, but it does put these developments into a historical context.
  • Book II: Minimalism, Eno and the New Simplicity
    This section covers musicians that are closest to what many would consider “ambient” musicians. La Monte Young, Terry Riley, and other minimalists are discussed, along with other composers and popular musicians that create music that encourages different perceptions of time. Prendergast puts special importance on Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells, because of the influence that they had on other artists.  
  • Book III: Ambience in the Rock Era
    This section looks at how technology has affected the way popular musicians record and perform music, and includes groups like the Beach Boys, The Byrds, Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd, Kraftwerk, Cabaret Voltaire, Ennio Morricone, Peter Gabriel, and Enya. Prendergast takes serious looks at the “Berlin School” of synth-rock, especially Tangerine Dream. This section covers many musicians that readers may find tangential to the subject matter of ambient music.
  • Book IV: House, Techno, and 21st Century Ambience
    The last section tries to filter modern electronica through Prendergast’s broad ambient lens, and looks at everything from Donna Summer to Moby. Again, this section covers a little of everything, but is a good introduction to many dance-oriented electronic musicians.

The Ambient Century is a sprawling book, perhaps too sprawling, One occasionally gets the impression that Prendergast has simply included the music that he likes rather than conform to the common use of the term “ambient music”, or create his own cogent argument for what ambient music is. Prendergast’s book does a very good job of covering a lot of interesting musicians and composers of the last century. He also does a good job of introducing some of the ideas and technologies that affected the development of art music in this era.

Prendergast does a less convincing job of connecting these things together thematically. After reading the book, it’s still difficult to see the connection between musicians like Mahler, Eno, Miles Davis and Yes. The book is full of information, but doesn’t effectively tie this information together with ideas. Readers may find themselves asking “why was this musician included”.

One other weakness of the book is the number of typographical and factual errors it contains. The book is nearly encyclopedic in scope, but diminishes its value as a reference because of the large number of errors it contains. The Ambient Century could benefit from some editing and fact checking. Let’s hope that there will be a second edition. With some editing, this could become an excellent introduction and reference.

The book’s greatest strength is that it will introduce almost any reader to some interesting musicians. The Ambient Century coves one hundred years of interesting music. Because of its scope, it doesn’t look at any artist in great depth. However, it does cover many of the highlights of the last century’s music, and will inspire many readers to explore sounds that they might not have otherwise known about, and even to listen to some familiar works with open ears.

Electronic Music Projects for Musicians

Craig Anderton

No writer has done a better job of covering the do-it-yourself world of music electronics than Craig Anderton. He’s written for a variety of music magazines, and covered everything from soldering cables to patching virtual synthesizers.

Electronic Projects for Musicians is a great introduction to the DIY world. The Internet has made it possible to get parts and plans to inexpensively build just about any electronic music device that you can think of. The DIY approach makes almost any electronic device affordable. For most people, though, the thought of piecing together electronics from a collection of resistors, diodes, and transistors is daunting.

Anderton’s book is one of the best ways to get started. The projects he covers are all pretty simple, and are for devices that just about anybody can use: pre-amps, ring modulators, phasers, and filters. The designs are perfect for use as guitar pedals or keyboard effects.

Anderton starts out slowly, covering the basics of electronic parts. Then he moves onto simple projects, and gradually introduces more complicated ones. The book also teaches you what you need to know in order to build small projects like these, including things like judging a good solder joint.

Electronic Projects for Musicians is a must-read for anyone interested in the world of DIY electronic musical instruments.

All Music Guide to Electronica

This massive book is biblical in proportion, but unfortunately does not qualify as the bible for electronic music fans.

This guide to electronica is nearly 700 pages long, and it manages to cover a great deal of territory. The emphasis is one reviews, and the guide manages to fit in about 600 pages of music reviews. This is indispensable…it’s the biggest collection of electronic review I’ve ever seen. The reviews are in alphabetical order by artist, and cover most of the major artists in popular electronic music from the 70’s on.

The guide starts out with brief introductions to various styles of electronica, and some of the major artists of each style. The book wraps up with several essays that discuss major electronic styles, some of the main artists, and how influences have changed the sound of the music over time.

I find the Guide to Electronica indispensable, but that doesn’t mean that it is without fault. The book often feels like it was cut and pasted together, rather than written as a unified whole. Because of this, there are a lot of inconsistencies in the reviews, even within a single artist. The book also suffers from a bit of long-term memory loss, because it traces the history of electronica back to the 70’s and 80’s, but not much further.

Some important electronica is left out, while some of the artists reviewed aren’t electronica musicians. There’s very little discussion of Giorgio Moroder, who’s “I Feel Love” is a blueprint for trance. New Age and space music are skimmed over, yet there are many examples of bands that seem to be more “hair bands” rather than electronica artists. Klaus Schulze gets less space than Miles Davis.

The bottom line on this book is that any electronic music fan should be able to flip through this and find dozens of new artists to check out. That makes it indispensable.

Vintage Synthesizers, 2nd Edition

by Mark Vail

There are many books about synthesizers and electronic music, but Mark Vail’s Vintage Synthesizers is one of the best.

Vintage Synthesizers collects articles originally written for Keyboard magazine by Vail and others. The articles cover notable synthesizers and the companies behind them. In doing so, Vail tells the stories of the people that created these important instruments, and their companies’ rise and fall.

This is the second edition of the book, and it has been extensively updated and enlarged. Vintage Synthesizers covers most of the major companies and the most important synthesizers. It also discusses some of the weirder synths, and ones that never quite made the light of day. The book is well-illustrated, with a full-color section at the beginning, and black and white photos throughout.

The book has six main sections.

Hearts of the Modern Synth Industry
This section is a breezy introduction to the major synth manufacturers. It also includes “It came from the music industry”, an article that discusses some of the oddities of synthesizer history. These articles are interesting overviews of the synth world.

Modular Synthesizers
This section is very interesting, because it covers the synthesizers that started the whole electronic music revolution. There are articles on Arp, Buchla, Emu, EML Moog, and Polyfusion and Moog.

This section includes a large article on Keith Emerson’s Moog that is fascinating. Emerson’s Moog was one of the largest of its day, and certainly the most visible. He abused it on-stage and off. It was filled with water and left outside and had many problems as a result. It was rebuilt, though, and now works better than ever. The article details each of the modules within the synthesizer, including the bogus faceplates that were there just for show.

Famous Analog Synths
This section covers the Minimoog, the Prophet V, the CS-80, early Korg synths, and others. It discusses what made these synthesizers popular and what makes each of them important in the history of synths.

Digital Synths and Samplers

For several years, analog synths have been popular collectables, because they are easy to use, immediate, and sound great. Digital synths are beginning to become collectables, too. This section covers synths like the PPG Wave, the Synergy and the Emu Emulator.

These synths are less likely to become desirable musical instruments again, because their sound is more easily duplicated by more powerful soft-synths, and they didn’t have the immediacy of analog synths. Nevertheless, they are interesting, important synths. Vail discusses the contribution of each of the major early digital synths, and also major musicians and music that featured them.

Miscellaneous

There are many synth-related topics that don’t fit well into the earlier categories, so this section discusses things like drum machines, DIY syths, electric organs, and electronic pianos. There is coverage of Roland’s famous drum machines, electric pianos, and other instruments.

The Patchbay

This section looks at issues that affect buyers, collectors and owners of vintage synths. This includes tips on evaluating and buying vintage synths, determining pricing, and maintenance.

This section is good overall, but the discussion of used prices is not very helpfull. Vail lists very wide price ranges, making it difficult to make much use of them. Also, many of the prices seem out of date. Some are way too low, especially for desirable analog synths. On the other hand, others are high. For example, the Minimoog listing shows $300-1,600. This doesn’t really tell you what they are worth. At this point, Ebay has become one of the best tools for determining real selling prices for vintage synths.

On the other hand, the coverage of maintaining vintage synths is good. There is a listing of companies that repair and rebuild old synths. Vail also includes interviews with synth experts, and they provide tips on what some of the common problems are. I’d like to see this section expanded. One other thing I’d love to see added is more information on getting replacement parts.

The book also includes a glossary of synthesizer terms. There’s not much here that is new to anybody that’s been interested in synths very long, but this section may help new collectors.

Vail’s Vintage Synthesizers is the place to start if you want to learn more about vintage synths. If you are interested in buying older synths, this book will make you a better shopper. If you are a musician, this book will help you understand the instruments behind the music, and also how the instruments shaped the sounds of their times. For anyone interested in electronic music, this book is a must-have!

The Mellotron Book

Frank Samagaio

Back before samplers made the scene in the 80’s, the Mellotron ruled as a source of “lifelike” playback of prerecorded sounds. The Mellotron Book takes you back to the early days of sampling, and explores the unique qualities of this strange instrument.

The Mellotron is a keyboard that basically has a tape player assigned to each key. When any key is depressed, the tape for that note is played, sort of a lo-fi sampler.

The Mellotron made it possible to add orchestral sounds inexpensively. There were loops for strings, voices, flutes, and other sounds. It was used extensively by acts in the late 60’s and 70’s by groups such as The Beatles, the Moody Blues, Klaus Schulze, and Tangerine Dream. Because Mellotrons were used on so many classic cuts, they are now sought after vintage instruments.

Samagaio’s book explores the history of the Mellotron, offering an in-depth take on this unusual instrument. The book includes many photos of the instrument and old promotional material. It also provides a discography of albums that feature the Mellotron. It even covers the mechanics of the Mellotron, the sound loops available for it, and its use.

This is a very well-done book, and worthwhile read for anyone interested in electronic music history, or the story behind the sounds of all those classic pop, rock and synth albums of the 70’s. Musicians are beginning to get back into the classic Mellotron sounds, and this is the best reference available.

Modulations: A History of Electronic Music – Throbbing Words on Sound

Edited by Peter Shapiro

Modulations serves as a good introduction to the various genres of modern dance electronica. It was was written to accompany Iara Lee’s 1998 film of the same name. It is written in a hip style by people you can tell really love electronica. It is stylishly put together, and includes many great photos that give you a feel for the musicians and the scene they were making music for.

The book is written by a variety of musicians and critics, and edited by Peter Shapiro. They cover electronic music from the early artists like Varese to today’s dance electronica.

The book does a good job of covering most of the dance current styles of electronic dance music. It covers house, trance, rave culture, electropop and techno well. It doesn’t do a good job of covering styles that aren’t dance-oriented. There is almost no coverage of electronic music in the worlds of jazz, classical, new age,  or rock.

Because of the uneven coverage, Modulations serves as a good introduction to modern dance electronica, but doesn’t live up to it’s claim of being “A History of Electronic Music”.

Analog Days: The Invention and Impact of the Moog Synthesizer

Frank Trocco, Trevor Pinch

This book is a must-buy for any synth-fan or electronic music lover.

This book tells the history of the origin of the synthesizer. But it doesn’t just tell the dates and stories. Instead, it gives you insight into the people that built the first synthesizers. It gives you a feel for the times, and lets you understand why the early synthesizers would have seemed so trippy to the people of the 60’s.

The book focuses on the rise of Robert Moog and his synthesizers. The authors also discuss some of the other early synth pioneers, such as Donald Buchla and Alan Perlman. There are pictures of these pioneers, the early synthesizers, and the places that they were made.

Best of all, though, is the picture that the book paints of the times. It tells the stories of the first concerts that featured synthesizers, and how they were embraced by the hippy scene. There are some wonderful pictures included of fliers that were used to advertised early synth concerts…happenings in the lingo of the day!

The book also tells the stories of some of the earliest synth performers: Wendy Carlos, Pauline Oliveras, Keith Emerson, Beaver and Krause, Suzanne Ciani and others. By covering the instruments, the inventors, the times and the artists, the book shows why the synthesizer has evolved as it has.

The book is very readable…it’s tough to put down. While it is an accurate history the synthesizer, it is even more a picture of the times. Just like a Ken Burns documentary uses its subject matter, be it Baseball or the Civil War, to tell you about people and the greater forces of the times, Trocco and Pinch use the story of the synthesizer to discuss the fascinating characters and new ideas of a different time.