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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