How do students bring a vintage synthesizer back its groove?

Student restorers William Mauro and Dani Dobkin with faculty adviser David Vallancourt.

One of the world’s most remarkable collections of electronic music equipment, from the famed RCA Mark II Synthesizer to the latest audio editing software, is at Columbia’s Computer Music Center (CMC). The CMC is the oldest electronic music center in the US, founded in 1958. It has long been a hotbed of electronic music composition and performance. With the CMC at Columbia, music and engineering students are now able to work together to revive old music technologies.

In the mid-1960s, Columbia commissioned a synthesizer from electronic music pioneer Don Buchla, an engineer who also consulted for NASA. Buchla synthesizers make unexpected, often unearthly atonal chirps and warbles. They were an essential sound of the electronic music movement of the 1960s. But Columbia’s Buchla had fallen silent over time, victim to blown fuses, stuck knobs, and tangled wires. Now, students are restoring this piece of music history.

With a PhD candidate in music and undergraduates in electrical engineering, computer science, and mechanical engineering, an interdisciplinary team has been fixing technology from the mid-60s, including finding telephone switchboard indicator lights.

“We often try to put ourselves into the shoes of someone from that era,” says Luis Collado, a junior studying electrical engineering. “It’s a lot of historical orienting of our mind-set to the point of view of a 1963 innovator of music, who was building this when it was revolutionary.”

In two semesters, the team restored two of the synthesizer’s three cabinets. Their work inspired their faculty advisor, Electrical Engineering Senior Lecturer David Vallancourt, with what is possible at Columbia.

“It would be very hard to find another place with that deep of a connection to electronic music,” says Vallencourt. “That’s about being at Columbia and about being in New York City.” Learn more.


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