By Lorraine and Dale Kay
JUNE 2011 – LOS ANGELES – I recently visited the new location for Cyndustries and thiaMedia in Glendale, California with my photographer and sidekick Dale Kay. We were met by engineer/ designer extraordinaire Cynthia Webster and were later joined by one of four other influential engineers and partners Dr. Herbert Kuhnert. We were given the royal tour of the facilities and talked about the company’s products and future dreams.
The first thing we realized early on in the interview is that Cynthia is a multi-faceted lady who the more we talked to her, the more facets were exposed. Our initial reason for visiting was her flagship music electronics company Cyndustries.com, for which she was getting ready to launch a major marketing campaign to promote the company’s newest product releases, so we jumped right in. Entering her building she proudly showed us her products and awards and we could see what was obviously the beginning of a total renaissance in the company.
LK – So Cynthia, where do we begin?
CW – Welcome to Cyndustries. Here is my office and our 2007 Electronic Musician Editor’s Choice Award for the Zeroscillator, the first and I believe the only synthesizer module to ever win this prestigious award. It won in the Best Analog Synthesizer Category, which beat even the huge musical equipment corporations. So the Zeroscillator really has gone where no module has ever gone before!
Part of its appeal is the design, a pretty remarkable combination of functions presented on one panel. Also unique is that we made it in five different modular system formats. No one had done that before. Nicknamed the ZO as opposed to a typical VCO, its blockbuster release was not only an engineering coup, but it also signaled the beginning of a fundamental change in modular thinking and marketing.
As you see, we’ve got an array of exciting new product designs that are part of an overall master plan. Everyone is ready for a new paradigm in modular synthesis, new things to try, and new approaches to their music. Cynthia brand modules are the perfect blend of sophistication in circuitry, and diversity in marketing. By offering so many rich new opportunities to modular synthesists everywhere, we are constantly re-inventing ourselves.
We’ve been concentrating on the new web campaign working for weeks on all of the designs and the screen navigation and site updates. I do all the graphics here, and Les Mizzell writes all the code in South Carolina. Between shipping products and designing the new product line, we haven’t had a day off in months. Although this is our ninth year building synthesizers, we feel we’re just getting started.
LK – Before we start in about the new modules tell me how did Cyndustries come about?
CW – I had worked as a Director of Photography in the film industry for 20 years, having shot 42 feature films, when the life I was living took an abrupt turn in the summer of 1995. Heading to an early morning shoot in Malibu, in my five-ton camera/ grip and electric truck, I descended Trancas Canyon toward Pacific Coast Highway and realized the heavy truck under me was loaded with tons of extra equipment and was not slowing down. Stomping or pumping on the brakes, downshifting, and engaging the parking brake had little effect. I was careening toward a red light and cross traffic at a major intersection on PCH and I was helpless to stop the momentum. Roaring into oncoming traffic and then turning to avoid a wall of granite triggered the next disaster. I saw the Earth turn in my windshield, like seeing a wide screen movie in slow motion as the truck rolled over, a shower of sparks in the rear view mirror. I continued to slide – steel against asphalt, and when the truck finally stopped on its side, it was as though I was climbing out the hatch of a tank, like Patton emerging after battle. Physically I was OK, but the accident had US Highway One blocked in both directions for 45 minutes while rescue crews used air bags and cranes to right the truck. A helicopter hovered overhead, and a news crew and paramedics arrived on the scene. Traumatized, having glimpsed the end of my life, I sat sobbing on a bus bench watching all the players, and decided it was time for a new beginning. It was then that I started a spiritual journey to find myself again and figure out what I really wanted to do.
I come from a film family. My Father was a film director and producer, and my Mother was an actress and writer. My Grandmother “Webby” was the script girl on the original Dracula with Bela Lugosi and my Father used to sit on coffins around the set doing his homework. For me the film industry was leaving California to other states and countries offering big financial subsidies. It’s been a real shock to Hollywood and the thousands of talented people who’ve found themselves out of work.
It was a difficult decision for me, but thinking back I guess my accident was fortunate in a way. I sensed what was going on a bit ahead of the curve and started looking for something else. Also at the time HD video was starting up and no one could really make up their mind just what the format actually was. The consolidation of film and television companies into a handful of huge corporations which made them less willing to take chances on smaller independent films added to my decision. The glass ceiling I’d been experiencing was dropping on my head. I finally sold the cameras and the truck and all my equipment, and that’s when I really started shifting gears.
I’d been dabbling on the web, exploring the whole web experience pretty early on, and it seemed to be the right direction for me at the right time. Having had a brush with death and realizing how precious life is, I decided that the truest course was to redefine my bliss. Back in the 70’s I’d had, an Arp 2600 synthesizer, and attended the Boston School of Electronic Music, I was totally absorbed in synthesizers and circuitry, and even started a magazine about them, Synapse Magazine, which went international with my good friend Doug Lynner at the helm, and I went off to college in San Francisco where I continued playing live electronic music and recording. That opened the door to doing sound for theater, movies, and television, and it lead to wonderful careers in special effects and live-action cinematography. It would be more than twenty-years before I looked at a synthesizer again.
Modular synthesis is so much bigger and better now, with more variety, and it is so much more affordable. Cyndustries jumped into the internet modular phenomenon fairly early in 2002 and now there are over forty-six more modular manufacturing companies than when we started. I was inspired by this phenomenon and in turn, I’d like to think that we’ve somehow continued the inspiration.
LK – You keep saying “we” – Who is the team?
CW – At any given time, there are as many as eight people working at Cyndustries, which is a sole proprietorship. My design partner in circuitry is Mark Barton. I am proud to put Mark’s name on every module he‘s involved with since he is truly a world class electronics engineer. I’ve known Mark since I was in high school when we excitedly devoured every new Emerson, Lake, & Palmer album and each new issue of the ElectroNotes newsletter, the bible of analog synthesizer circuitry. He really helped me to understand electronics. I’m mainly self-taught having never taken any formal classes in electronics so I say my knowledge of circuitry is like a Swiss cheese – tasty, but full of many holes!
Dr. Herbert Kuhnert, a PhD in electronics, is doing some rather remarkable new surface mount circuit board layouts using OrCad, Louise Liebi, our mechanical AutoCad specialist, has an architectural background. Albert “AP” Lawrence was a military electronics expert in the air-force and is our chief technician. Brent Bowman reliably builds assemblies used here. Dr. Bill Sequeira has inspired us greatly in marketing over the years and Les Mizzell is of course our incredibly talented webmaster. With this very focused team of players, we are addressing engineering as well as fulfillment head-on by establishing an international dealer network. We have several dealers included already, and more coming on board.
LK – What are the new modules?
CW – We call these the Density Series and in developing them we’ve been fighting the good fight to provide more function per square inch of panel space than the competition. Our customers are clearly the winners in this campaign with more VCAs in less space than ever before; more filters, more envelopes, and more of everything coming! The first three new modules are called the Four Transients, the Four Filters, and the Octal VCA and are all available in each of five different modular formats.
For instance, the Four Transients modules (a transient is any spike above zero volts) are basically very tight envelope generators that are great for percussive sounds like those hemi-demi-semi-quavers we’re all looking for. The suite of envelopes can also process sound like a wave-shaper or filter, and you can even form the four of them into an event circle to make various types of oscillations in asymmetrical quadrature! I sometimes call them the doomsday envelopes because, in one of the modes, when you fire them, there is no way to recall the event. The missile is launched. Even if you remove the stimulus, the envelope will self-complete. Since there are four of these in one module, you can mix them, or cascade them, to form more complex types of events! The same philosophy is applied to the Four Filters module, allowing complex serial or parallel processing of the audio. Like a resonant construction set, you can build any combination you like.
We’re moving away from creating modules in only one format. Everything now is multi-format in Euro Rack, Dotcom, Motm, FracRak, and Modcan A-Series. That is exciting for us and for the customers because it gives most every system a broader selection of new capabilities. We started as a sidecar to Modcan and I was comfortable with that, thinking there was some sort of ego involved in the thought of making a whole system using our modules exclusively. For a long while I resisted the idea of creating a complete system, but now that we’re already half way there and have a plan for the future, I’ve changed my mind because ultimately the customer decides. To make the exciting changes we’re thinking of, it’s actually essential now that we implement whole system thinking. We already have the Zeroscillator and Sawtooth Animator in multiple formats which are doing extremely well. With the release of three more designs we’re up to twenty-five action packed modules. Even more modules will be released this year allowing customers to expand exponentially over the months ahead!
This is changing dramatically too with the function of the international dealer network to represent our products more locally. Eventually we plan to eliminate direct sales from our website completely.
LK – What is the creative process for you?
CW – Sometimes I take what might be described as a shamanistic approach towards the vision thing. Thoughts really are things as they say, and I usually have the ability to concentrate on ideas intensely. I see long range visualization as a necessary responsibility to my craft. Perhaps that is also why I am a Cinematographer.
Also, at the risk of exposing my own preference, I dream in Modcan, and then translate that design to the other formats, so the Modcan A-Series is always first on the drawing board because it was my first love.
But like any business, it’s the people that make the difference, and all of us here have years of experience and passion about what we do. It doesn’t matter who presents an idea, like knights of the round-table, there is no ego involved. It is always the best ideas that win. Not to be confused with ‘design by committee’ – Picasso did not market survey his ideas to decide what to paint. Each painting’s inspiration came from within him. At Cyndustries, it’s important that we respect each artist’s inspiration and work collectively to complement each concept without watering it down; always anticipating the customer’s needs, and not adding unnecessary features. This is what makes Cynthia brand products so special.
When we come up with designs that are radically different, people may not get it at first, but if I say, “Okay would you like eight Voltage Control Amplifiers – “Eight VCAs in one compact slim module?” Well sure they would love that because normally it would take up four times the space. If we do something simple as a Voltage Control Amplifier, then we make the very best circuit possible. I love the process of being methodical, absolutely making each product the best module possible. We never compromise on the design or the cost of the components, and then we like to show off a little by packing in as many features or functions as possible. It’s our way of throwing down the gauntlet to the competition, putting them on notice that they better not use crap components and stop wasting panel space.
This is all in good fun though, since I’m sure they like a challenge as much as we do!
LK – Back to the Zeroscillator can you explain it for the layman?
CW – The Zeroscillator, pronounced ‘Zer-Oscillator’, is a one of a kind oscillator. Oscillators are basically the sound engines for synthesizers. Without them there is almost no sound unless you use a noise source or resonate a filter, which can be somewhat chaotic. Over the years, oscillator designs had seemed to stagnate. One oscillator sounded like another, with possibly one or two different features. Mark and I sat down and made a laundry list of all the things that were possible, or had never been tried. The industry wide un-obtain-ium was ‘through-zero’ modulation. Normally, an oscillator can only modulate a positive control voltage that is above zero, but when you put a negative voltage into the Zeroscillator, you get a negative phase which is unique, and at audio rates, the result is profoundly more musical. Think of a typical oscillator as a tuning fork with a piece of tape stuck to one of the tines – it cannot ring true. The Zeroscillator removes this theoretical piece of tape allowing push-pull modulation instead of just push-push all the time, so it behaves and sounds much more natural. There is a ‘through-zero’ switch that allows one to compare the ZO modulation capabilities to that of a normal VCO, and when people hear the difference in their systems, they’re totally sold on the advantages of ‘through-zero’ modulation.
I chose to make the Zeroscillator layout consistent throughout nine different formats, including rackmount, Buchla, and Wiard, so it would be universal and provide the same user experience regardless. This consistency allows users of various systems to transcend format and actually speak the same language! To me, front panel design is a religious experience. Along with unique module ideas, it’s what I think I do best in the modular arena.
LK – What are you doing with FM Synthesis?
CW – Before the Zeroscillator, it was not practical to attempt Chowning style Linear FM synthesis in the analog realm. There was simply not enough precision available to track a keyboard accurately or to maintain the wave shapes through any sort of range. Some manufacturers said it could never be done, and that was a major motivation at Cyndustries. We spent ten-months banging our heads against breadboards until we had the major breakthrough. During the design phase, not even daring to pronounce the “Z” word, it was known as the McGuffin Project until we had hammered it out fully.
(Alfred Hitchcock used to refer to the central theme or object of each of his movies as the McGuffin).
LK – Everything looks really functional in here. You do all your own design and prototypes here? How does it begin?
CW – Mark Barton and I cook-up the ideas for modules and their features. He then fine-tunes and finalizes the circuits, while I do all the front panel designs, marketing, and web graphics.
We do all the production, except for manufacturing the fiberglass circuit boards and letting robots stuff all the parts. Our stereo inspection microscope assists us in doing most everything now in surface mount and since everybody wants a shallow module in a shallow boat or case, we’re totally doing that. We think the new sexy is thin modules.
The building itself is multi-functional. It’s a creation center of many kinds, consumer electronics manufacturing, electronic music recording studio, and visual laboratory. These are our workstations for R&D filled with parts and little things to measure and incorporate into CAD. Over here is our future post production area for editing, video synthesis, and computer graphics.
This is our tiny lounge up here on the mezzanine where people can find a little quiet and change of venue when needed. This end of course is the shipping department, the very last stage of the new pipeline we’ve created. Down there is all of the grip and electric gear for digital cinema production. It feels good to reincorporate the joyful things from my past as a Director of Photography here in the studio again, although we’ve done some music videos, and an experimental Augmented Reality project for Beck’s Beer, ninety-nine percent of my time is completely dedicated to Cyndustries because it is what keeps the doors open and what ultimately allows my production company, thiaMedia, to be more selective in the types of projects it does accept.
We are always looking for ways to bridge the gap between the combination of sound and video production along with modular synthesis. One area I’m quite keen on exploring is discrete surround sound in realtime, which might go a long way in the democratization of analogue surround production. If you think about it, there are millions and millions of 5.1 surround sound installations in homes across the world, yet as an artistic audio community, we are herded mainly into stereo as our principal means of expression. Why is this so, and what can we do to open this up?
From what I’ve seen, a lot of surround sound production is a non-realtime digital rendering process with front and back pairs layered separately, and the center channel usually added later as a band-aid. Let’s start talking about full surround sound environments that swoop and bleep from channel to channel as holistic patches that address the medium as a single six-channel recording pass, instead of a post-production composite of discontinuous parts.
LK – With such innovative designs do you find it difficult to get the word out effectively about these products?
CW – The burden of education in releasing new types of modules is not insignificant. We dedicate a single page of text to each module at Cyndustries.com explaining the new functions conversationally, but concisely.
Along with the website, I’m active on Facebook, and represent our Cynthia brand products to musical merchandizers and synthesizer gatherings and user groups. Of course, I’m always available through email and on the phone. I answer calls personally.
LK – What do you want people that are new to these products to know?
CW – Many people own a synthesizer, perhaps a keyboard instrument in particular, and have run into their limitations or want to try a different way of working. Eventually, they start looking around at what else is available, but a lot of it can seem too technical or confusing. I say, trust your instincts – if something looks cool then go for it! The best thing is to start small, buy only a handful of modules. Actually, the fewer the better, because then you will get to know what that handful of modules is really capable of. After learning the functions inside and out, you can expand this process gradually by adding new modules to your system over time.
With modular synthesizers, there’s some new vocabulary and patching technique, which has to be assimilated, however. If you hesitate trying to figure-out what in the heck they’re talking about, you’ll miss all the fun! I started my personal Modcan format system with just three modules. I knew what the modules did in concept, but had never tried one of their systems. The modules arrived and were everything I’d hoped for and more so I bought more cool A-series modules from Bruce Duncan. I was also inspired by the wonderful modular synth projects Jim Patchell, Dave Brown, and the late Larry Hendry were doing in the modular DIY community… and well, here we are!
Just like reading difficult technical journals or reading schematics, if you don’t understand something, don’t stop. Have the perseverance and faith in yourself to plow forward in spite of not comprehending it all, because eventually you’ll understand more of it than you think. Understanding new modules can be the same way.
Cyndustries is committed to supporting five formats, not just Euro which has seen a great rise in popularity lately because of the dealers’ desire to simplify their stocking requirements by only selling one format that is the smallest and least expensive. Don’t be afraid to proudly ask your dealer for modules in other formats of your choice! We are happy to provide high quality designs in Euro, but unlike most, we are committed to supporting the other formats as well, pretty heavy lifting for such a small company, but we feel that all modular format boats will rise together by our doing this. Hopefully customers and dealers alike will see the value in this and encourage our efforts. Everyone benefits!
LK – With so many ideas it must be difficult to produce the finished products. What have you done to economize your time and materials and how does that translate to the users?
CW – From very meager beginnings in 2002, At long last we have a fully professional infrastructure set up. We have a large commercial building now, a growing dealer network, and a team with the perfect blend of technical capabilities. We have the parts, the drive, and the inspiration to take this to the next level. It’s not just about us though. We have the plans and variety of format offerings to really upgrade the entire modular experience for everybody. The long term benefits of this will be more obvious to our customers over the next few months and it’s really exciting to know where all this is heading! Are our plans top secret? Of course, but I can say that we’ve found ways for everyone to repurpose their investment by finding totally new uses for all of the modules that they already have…
LK – In spite of everything – you were able to keep Cyndustries going?
CW – When we released the Zeroscillator I was operating Cyndustries out of two apartments in Santa Monica. When my Father passed away in 2006 leaving my Mother alone, everything changed. As an only child, I had promised Dad that I would take care of her, never putting her in an old folk’s home. I loved them both dearly and I took great care of Mom for four years until she passed away a few months ago. For those four years, the business was moved to, and run from, the family home in Pacific Palisades. Assembly was in the garage, and I had an office in the bedroom – less than ideal, but it worked. I never realized what an impediment this full-time sequester would be to my business.
During that time, I mostly cooked, cleaned, soldered, and constantly ordered more parts! My social life dwindled to zero, I didn’t need a cell phone, and my car sat idle growing rust. Not to mention brewing thousands of pots of tea (after all, she was British), but I followed through on the commitment to my family, a promise that put the company in the back seat for a while.
When she passed away last October I was of course quite devastated, but I was also very anxious to revitalize the company. There were a lot of things we had in the works that had gotten shelved, and suddenly I had a cosmic green light to make Cyndustries my priority again.
I had been totally there for Mom, but now it was my time, and I seized the opportunity with gusto. It was immensely satisfying to reactivate so many aspects of my life, getting out and doing things, meeting with vendors and our new distributors, interviewing people to form a new team, hell just shopping at the mall! Oh my God! What an explosion of opportunities, a Cynthia renaissance!
Of course over that time, not every project had gone smoothly. A small group of friends and customers begged us to make the Zeroscillator in Buchla format and perhaps foolishly I said yes, because I didn’t quite realize what I was getting myself into… We did the ZOe project as a very low profile release because we were responding to requests, not trying to raid Don Buchla’s shores like Vikings. I have great respect for Don Buchla and have attempted to stay out of his limelight. It was already difficult to physically cram so much circuitry into the format’s dimensions, along with practically doubling the number of jacks on the front panel in order to accommodate both miniphones and bananas. Having successfully made the ZO in so many different formats, this time we had to use different types of voltages than the others, and there seems to be some confusion out there in determining exactly what those standards are, because there have been changes and improvements over the years between their 100, 200, and 200e series systems. Getting it right cost us a lot of time, as well as three different versions of the same circuit board for the front panel components, and ultimately a redesign of the Zeroscillator engine itself. This resulted in a new ZO Mark II design, reducing the four circuit board through-hole assembly down to a single surface mount card. Now all new Zeroscillators are only about two inches deep and track keyboard voltages better for more octaves.
To do this we had to make a few tradeoffs, such as simplifying the synch circuit and removing some oversized components including the chip sockets, which makes servicing more difficult, so both the original Zeroscillator, and the new Mark II have their advantages. For example, we can finally fit them into the portable Dotcom and Eurorack cases. Having taken so long on the ZOe Buchla format Zeroscillator, I was under tremendous pressure and although I could have shoved them out the door the way they were, this is what I do and who I am. My name is on every front panel and no matter how difficult, I had to do the right thing for the Buchla community by adhering exactly to the correct electrical standards. Finally, I can say that we’ve solved all the issues with the Mark II, and they’re a really great addition to Buchla systems. Orders will be fulfilled within a month, and then we will retrofit the one in the field.
LK – There are other modular creators – why should people buy your products over those created by others? What makes yours different and better? How much can you tell me about your secret sauce recipe without giving away industry secrets?
CW – One of our secret ingredients at Cyndustries is that we’ve made a big investment in a computer controlled Multilayer PCB Rapid Prototype System.
This means we can repeat the Test & Update process on each circuit board layout and actually make beautiful new boards here – several times a day if necessary.
Auto routing allows us to re-arrange our parts placement on the fly, and this ability to turn our designs on a dime allows us to incorporate customer suggestions and improvements to our products almost instantly. Everyone benefits from this new level of sophistication.
There is more to it than only using high quality components and not scrimping on critical costs. Thinking out of the box and thinking long term is perhaps our greatest asset. What we bring to the table is a smorgasbord of life experience. As far as myself doing synthesizers for a while and getting away for several years and then coming back was a wonderful thing because in the meantime I learned a lot.
As far as our products – I would like to think that the aesthetic is as highly desirable as the function what drives it, and that it’s all about learning and growing from experience, both good and bad. For example we have a product in design called ScanOpan®. At first, we developed a scanner module that would scan through many inputs, and then we developed a companion panner module which was to take one source and pan it to many different outputs. I started thinking of the possibilities of using the two in concert and asked my design partner Mark Barton, “Could we combine the two of these into one?… Why couldn’t it be a dessert topping and a floor wax?” so to speak. The synergy of that idea lead to more innovation, including the ability to do some wicked granular synthesis in analog. This promises to be an educational challenge.
One lesson was that we did about twenty different circuit board designs to accommodate the Zeroscillator in so many different formats, which added greatly to our delivery times and costs. Now we’ve streamlined our multi-format approach behind the scenes, by using more circuit board layouts in common for all of our new products. We’ve invested a lot in research as well as keeping the orders shipping and providing customer support. In addition, we have risen to the new environmental demand that all our assemblies be lead free. Not everyone does this.
LK – So why did you leave Pacific Palisades and move to Glendale?
CW – As I mentioned earlier, I have a multi-media production company here called thiaMedia with an emphasis on experimental imaging. Just like the way we design our modules at Cyndustries looking for new music, thiaMedia is heavy on research and development, always looking for exciting new ideas for film and television. We have some neat optical, computer, and video toys, and a computer driven 16-axis Kuper motion control system with a robotic camera crane of our own design. There is seventy feet of precision linear track for the camera that came from Industrial Light & Magic. As far as I know, it was used on “Jedi”, and all of the Back to the Future movies, and possibly for the ore bucket mine chase with Indian Jones. Here is number 12, the actual computer controlled pan and tilt head used to make the stationary Mothership model appear to fly in “Close Encounters”. I was working in multiple departments, including the smoke room, at Doug Trumbull’s Entertainment Effects Group on CE3K Special Edition and for a year as Special Assistant to Photographic Effects on “Star Trek, the Motion Picture”. I learned so much there and never imagined that someday I‘d own any of this. As the equipment arrived at the building we had a few quiet moments of humble reverence, promising that we would strive to continue its fine legacy. We may get the chance soon as we are presently negotiating with representatives of a Disney stop motion project in 3D.
Quickly getting the motion system and shooting stage functional, as well as the Cyndustries electronics prototype lab, assembly line, and shipping department running again was a monumental challenge! Setting the building up with new utilities, email, permits, insurance, and doing it by the book naturally took some time. So finally, six months after moving, people are just starting to see a little of what we’re up to. The synergy of combining the abilities of both companies has just begun to result in some powerful medicine with waves of new ideas permeating everything we do. After all, isn’t this type of thinking why we all like modular synthesizers in the first place?
LK – Have you thought about video synthesis?
CW – Video Synthesis is a wonderful thing. I really look forward to spending more time using some of the latest video modules that people are making, especially for our own productions because the new gear is so very cool. I’ve found the full video synthesis look as I remember it in the 70’s to be a bit illusive though. There were some great designs, and I actually have a collection of schematics and circuit board layouts for several, but a lot of the parts are no longer available because people were using them to build boxes to get free cable TV, and I think the evil empire reacted by destroying the chips forever. The technology changed in the meantime. The systems that I see coming out today are very interesting, however so far, I think that they’re all NTSC or PAL, and if we were to design any video modules, they would be in full High-Definition format which is all digital and completely non-trivial! If you’re a video engineer with module designs, then we’re interested. A couple of video engineers we spoke with wondered why we wouldn’t just use a desktop computer instead, which I feel rather missed the whole point.
LK – So what exactly is the point? Is it all about being totally analog? I know you have a pretty solid philosophy about the modulars you build and your business. Do you want to share a bit of that?
CW – We are very proud of the fact that the Zeroscillators are completely analog, but we’re not analog purists per se´, our commitment is to the modular synthesis experience itself, and we use whatever technology is appropriate to put our desired functions behind the panels. I design the front panel first, and then figure out how to make the electronics do it in back. It’s apparently the way Don Buchla has been doing it all these years, and as a similar electronic musician / instrument designer, I always liked to view the design from the musician’s perspective first. Sometimes a new chip or component comes out that inspires us, we get all the electronic magazines and all the trades, and we look through them and sometimes see something really nifty. “Wow, Corn! Now we can make tortillas, we’ve been waiting to do this for hundreds of years!” any great idea, or some new DSP processing chip that trivializes what was full of parts in circuitry before is considered. There’s no reason not to, as long as it can support a good user experience, and has great sound, and that last part about the quality of sound and timbre, is why we always seek a totally analog solution first. We’re not “analog-only nuts”. We are happy to use microprocessors where appropriate. You know how they say that, “if you’re a hammer, then everything looks like a nail?” We don’t think we’re guilty of that. The user interface is especially important to us. When somebody has been working all day in an office, risking carpal tunnel syndrome and staring into a computer screen, the last thing they may want to do is go home and try the same thing to unwind.
Sometimes watching a lot of television on the couch can just be too passive, when what they really want is to putter-about creatively, using other muscles, or using different frequencies or hemispheres of their brain. Isn’t it ultimately all about having fun?
We remember fun!
A lot of manufacturers analyze every single part saying, ‘Oh that potentiometer or that knob is three-bucks’, or fifteen or whatever it is, and reject the part because it’s “too expensive.” We are always fearless about using the absolute coolest parts we can find. Synthesizer owners are proud of their systems, selecting each module and putting the systems together is really a big accomplishment, often displayed as a centerpiece in their homes. Their system is much more than just a tool to them, it is an artful presence, an instrument of their expressions, and represents a concert of creative audio control opportunities. Sometimes I think an unspoken truth is that a lot of us synthesists are really just big kids and our systems are a giant busy box. It lets us get away with acting like mad scientists pushing buttons while we experiment away in our sonic laboratories. And, what’s wrong with that? If we can all forget our cares in the world for a few hours and be productive and happy, it improves our quality of life.
Other times I like to get serious attempting to make some fantastical future music or create the moody sound design for a nonexistent film because I would love to do one in surround sound here in the studio. A lot of professional bands, composers, and musicians use our gear. Daft Punk on the Tron film soundtrack, Chemical Brothers, Joel Goldsmith, Drew Neumann, Depeche Mode, Richard Divine, Trent Reznor and so many others. In fact, we have thousands of modules in homes and studios in over 35 countries.
LK – What do you tick Cynthia? What do you do for fun or to unwind?
CW – When I was in high school, I used to drive to Cal Arts in LA and beg the composition students there to share a little of their time on the mysterious Buchlas. I saw Don perform live in the 70’s while I was in living in Haight Ashbury, San Francisco. There’s a reason he’s a legend! In recent years I called him to ask for his blessing on releasing a Cynthia version of his famous Low Pass Gate circuit, and while he seemed surprised that anyone might be interested, he was most gracious and said, “Yes”. I, on the other hand, was trembling like the cowardly lion in the presence of the great and powerful wizard.
I was also fortunate to spend several days discussing circuitry with Bob Moog, who was equally gracious, and we both benefitted from trading ideas, ultimately implementing suggestions that we had given each other. He even went so far as to finally giving me the go ahead on recreating one of his more obscure designs. I kept talking about how wonderful it was, “Really?”…“You like it that much?”….until he relented, “Ok Cynthia, you can do the module!” He was a very kind man and, of course, had a profoundly positive influence on the world.
I’ve been to the Xerox PARC Research Center in Palo Alto where great ideas like the computer mouse were born. I was lucky enough to be present at John Chowning’s seminal public demonstration of FM synthesis at Stanford where there were so many interesting things going on. I was a young student with plenty of curiosity and free time when I happened to wander into the very first West Coast Computer Fair, in 1976. Jobs and Wozniak were releasing the Apple II, and Bill Gates was just another young nerd with a booth. I’ve even been to Everest Base Camp in Nepal at 18,000 feet where I learned a great deal about endurance, but’s that’s another story. What influence these things have had on what I presently do, I don’t know, but somehow I’ve been fortunate to be in some very interesting places at the right time. I can only attribute it to a certain way of thinking – a thirst or a quest? As yet, I probably don’t realize a lot of the profound effects these influences have had, but I continue to be true to myself, and let artistic inspiration flow.
Although I run Cyndustries 7 days a week now, I’m one of the lucky ones – I love my work, but I also love history and books and like doing research about how the world came to be as it is today. I particularly like the works of Zecharia Sitchin to learn how it may have all started. I play piano several times a day, mostly my own improvisations. I’ve been playing for years and got a lot of inspiration at San Francisco State University. Of course I enjoy being known for synthesis and design, and plan on recording a lot more of my own electronic music in the future, but I wouldn’t mind if someday people say, “You know, Cynthia makes really cool modules, but she’s a damn good piano player, too!”
LK – So potential customers can find out about your products and how to order through the web site?
CW – Yes our website is Cyndustries.com
You can navigate it the usual way, or through much of it cyclically by clicking on the images of the modules themselves. Clicking on the Cynthia logo usually takes you to the News Page & Ordering Info. We offer direct sales on the site, but we are quite committed to providing our dealers with strong support. A page on the site will direct customers with links to dealers through their icon badges. As we shift to an expanding network of dealers we hope to phase out direct sales, though part of this requires more dealers willing to distribute a wider variety of formats. There are a great number of Dotcom, Frak, and MOTM format installations out there with a huge community of hungry customers who deserve immediate gratification too. That’s the gap we are now filling, and it is a sleeping giant of a market for distributors. Let’s all do this.