Thomas Dolby Explains How a Synthesizer Works on a Jim Henson Kids Show (1989)

We’ve all heard the musical fruits of audio synthesis, especially if we regularly listen to the pop of the 1980s. But how, exactly, does a synthesizer work? Ask a modern electronic-music enthusiast and the answer may come out too technical, and at too much length, to bear. But pioneeringly technology-minded singer-songwriter Thomas Dolby, he of “She Blinded Me with Science” (though I’ve always prefer his more elegiac numbers like “Airwaves“), can give you a clearer, more concise explanation. In fact, he gets it simple to the point of child-friendliness — so simple that he gives it on a children’s television program. The Ghost of Faffner Hall, which ran in late 1989 in England and America, taught lessons about music with a gallery of famous performers — Bobby McFerrin, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Mark Knopfler — in a puppet-rich setting. Those puppets, the denizens (living and dead) of the titular Faffner Hall, came built by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, known for their mastery of Muppet craft.

Dolby’s illustration of a synthesizer’s operation involves an unusual work of Muppetry: a fly in a matchbox. “A synthesizer consists of two things,” he says, “an oscillator and a filter. The oscillator controls the pitch of the sound, and the filter controls the tone.” Out, then, comes the box and its slightly unwilling (Muppet) inhabitant. “I want you to imagine the fly is an oscillator, and this box is a filter.” Dolby shakes the box, representing electrical current through an oscillator, which makes the frightened fly buzz. “The harder I shake the box, the higher the pitch!” To demonstrate filtration, he opens and closes the matchbox, harshening the fly’s wail (until, indeed, it turns into a cry of “Help!”). If you’d like to hear Dolby talk more about the intersection of his art and his technology at a higher, albeit Muppetless level, have a listen to his appearance last year on the Nerdist podcast. He long ago, in another context, stated his goal of teaching people that synthesizers “don’t have to sound like a crate of moribund wasps” — an interesting thing to accomplish with a matchbox and a superintelligent fly.

via That Eric Alper

Related Content:

Buzz Aldrin and Thomas Dolby Geek Out and Sing “She Blinded Me With Science”

Meet the Dr. Who Composer Who Almost Turned The Beatles’ “Yesterday” Into Early Electronica

All Hail the Beat: How the 1980 Roland TR-808 Drum Machine Changed Pop Music

Mr. Rogers Introduces Kids to Experimental Electronic Music by Bruce Haack & Esther Nelson (1968)

Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.



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