Serving as both a history of the electronic synthesizer and a look at today’s robust modular synth cottage industry, I Dream of Wires: the Hardcore Edition is a must view for any fan of electronic music and analog synthesis. After spending an afternoon watching the entire four-hour movie, I was inspired to check out prices for my own modular unit as well as broadening the scope of TabMuse from a magazine focused on tablet synth apps to something covering the entire world of sound synthesis.
Featuring a host of interviews with many in the synth industry – old and new – and a cool soundtrack, I Dream of Wires ranks near the top of music industry documentaries. The four-hour length of the hardcore edition breaks up nicely into two separate pieces – one covering the history of the analog synth and one covering today’s modular scene. Watching it in one sitting might give short shrift to the newer content if viewer fatigue sets in.
I Dream of Wires – Hardcore Edition Data
- Producer: Jason Amm
- Writers: Robert Fantinatto and Jason Amm
- Director: Robert Faninatto
- Soundtrack: Solvent (Jason Amm)
- Length: 240 minutes
- Format: DVD or BluRay
The hardcore edition serves as a companion to a forthcoming feature-length version of the documentary. But any fan of synths needs the hardcore edition of I Dream of Wires in their movie library. It is a top notch production worthy of its subject matter.
Moog and Buchla and the History of the Analog Synthesizer
As mentioned earlier, the movie covers the history of electronic synthesizer in its first half. This includes a brief look at the pre-Moog/Buchla development of early electronic instruments, including the Theremin, and RCA’s room-sized modular unit. It serves nicely as a primer for the pioneering work of Don Buchla and Robert Moog.
Moog and Buchla essentially individually worked on their own synthesizer designs almost in parallel — Buchla in California, and Moog in Upstate New York. Buchla’s design was more experimental and fit in nicely with the San Fransisco art community and its nascent psychedelic scene, while Moog’s model leveraged a keyboard and seemed to have more direct musical applications. Moog’s legendary ladder filter had a lot to do with its classic sound and subsequent popularity.
This part of the documentary pays little attention to the popular synth-laden prog-rock of the day – Keith Emerson barely gets mentioned. This is no great loss – Emerson was always better when limited to organ and piano, IMO. Wendy Carlos gets covered in the context of Switched On Bach making the synthesizer a popular instrument, leading to a host of poorly conceived copycat albums.
The West Coast scene around Buchla’s modular system covers Morton Subotnick and his seminal Silver Apples of the Moon album as well as his work with the San Francisco Tape Music Center. The movie gives an interesting view of the organic nature of the development of Buchla’s synth within the context of the entire scene of that era. The current interviews with Subotnick, et al are an enjoyable aspect of the movie.
The rest of 70s saw other synth manufacturers enter the fray with a gradual increase in synth capabilities, but at the loss of some of the spirit and soul of the industry. The use of CPUs and RAM led to preset patches and the eventual demise of knobs, usability, and ultimately the large scale modular systems. Yamaha’s DX7 is naturally singled-out for derision.
A Modular Synthesis Rebirth
The sadness of the possible demise of the modular synthesizer as the first half of I Dream of Wires ends transforms into an interesting look at resurgence of today’s robust modular scene. Interviews with newer musicians like Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, Gary Numan, Vince Clarke of Erasure, and others provide insight to why modular synths remain a vital aspect of their music creation process. Manufacturers like Doepfer, hexinverter.net, and Make Noise along with a host of other companies reveal a thriving community.
I was convinced. Previously unaware of the depth of today’s modular movement and enthralled when a friend posted a video of a piece he created with his new Make Noise system, I knew a modular system was somewhere in my future.
The best documentaries are made as labors of love. Robert Fantinatto and Jason Amm put an amazing amount of effort into I Dream of Wires, and aficionados of analog synthesizers are the beneficiaries. This stunning documentary gets my highest recommendation and a special shout out for the excellent soundtrack composed by Jason Amm (as Solvent).