Now, anyone can play one of the biggest modular synthesizers in the world, thanks to a new project, code-named "PatchWerk." With PatchWerk's simple web interface, users around the world can control the colossal rig in real time, from its current home at the MIT Museum.
This is the Paradiso Synthesizer, named for its creator, Joe Paradiso - an associate professor at the MIT Media Lab, who built and fine-tuned the synth over the course of nearly four decades. The massive analog synth, which contains nearly 200 homemade modules, looks like something out of a vintage sci-fi film. Custom-built cabinets encase dozens of custom-designed circuits; a riot of red and blue patch cables conceals row upon row of mysterious knobs, switches, and buttons.
The synth might look intimidating, but the sounds that come out of it can be positively peaceful. Listeners can follow the synth on Twitter for poetic updates on its latest sounds, which make reference to legendary composer Terry Riley, Japanese bliss-rockers Boredoms, and '70s French band Heldon. The synthesizer burbles with new music 24 hours a day (you can listen to the synth at any time, day or night.)
By manipulating various toggles on the web interface, users around the world can turn on a sweeping oscillator sound, activate the chaotic sequencer, turn on drum machines and a growling speech synthesizer sound, control frequency and tempo, and much more. Letting anyone play the synth in real time could potentially lead to chaos, but the current design of PatchWerk - which has a small group of users experiment with sounds while other users wait a queue - is meant to help control for that. "I tend to think about the synth as running in its own space, where I adjust everything meticulously to give the effect and balance that I want," said Paradiso in an e-mail exchange with Wired. "All of the previous patches that I have posted off the site are of this ilk. My students Gershon Dublon, Brian Mayton, and Nick Joliat, the designers of the PatchWerk module, convinced me to try letting people over the net interact."
In the era of glossy iPad apps and slick soft synths, there is something strangely romantic about being able to work remotely with a hulking mass of analog hardware, which weighs hundreds of pounds and fills up an entire room. "People have been finding some beautiful spots in it, and also many garish ones - but it's never boring now, because there's always somebody somewhere in the world trying something different on it," said Paradiso.
With PatchWerk - named, of course, in homage to Kraftwerk - everyone can fulfill the dream that Paradiso had as an undergraduate at Tufts University in the 1970s. "I always wanted [a synthesizer] as long as I can remember and they were too expensive, so I needed to build one," said Paradiso. "As a kid motivated by electronics, science, and music growing up in the '60s and early '70s, the modular synths had a strong allure." They still do.
Image: Brian Mayton
A look inside one of the many cabinets that make up the massive analog synth.
One of the biggest modular synthesizers on the planet lurks in the halls of MIT.
A few commercial analog synths, including a pair of Moogs, were custom-modded and incorporated into the massive analog synth's infrastructure.
A close-up of a small portion of the massive modular synthesizer.
The PatchWerk module.