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

How do students bring a vintage synthesizer back its groove?

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, can be found at Columbia’s Computer Music Center (CMC). The CMC is the oldest electronic music center in the United States, founded in 1958, and has long been a hotbed of electronic music composition and performance. Because the CMC is at Columbia, new possibilities are opening up for music and engineering students 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 a range of unexpected, often unearthly atonal chirps and warbles, and were an essential sound of the burgeoning electronic music movement of the 1960s. But Columbia’s Buchla had fallen silent, victim to blown fuses, stuck knobs, and tangled wires. Now, Columbia students are restoring this priceless piece of music history.

With a PhD candidate in music and undergraduates studying electrical engineering, computer science, and mechanical engineering, an interdisciplinary team is addressing the numerous technical challenges of fixing technology from the mid-sixties, 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.”

After two semesters, the student team fixed two of the synthesizer’s three cabinets back to working order. The collaboration has 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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