Musical Toys: Peter Blasser's DIY Synths

When building synths, he remembers one thing: Crocodile penis.

Dec 2 2013, 3:15pm

They say Don Buchla was a mastermind of early modular synths and Peter Blasser is a whiz of DIY synths. The Baltimore-based musician builds and designs electronic sound devices for fun and profit with his company, Ciat-Lonbarde. The fun part of all this is that a lot of his instruments look like toys.

The Shnth is a touch, battery-powered 16 bit synthesizer which can be programmed with a unique language, while the Sidrassi Organ has 42 nodes on seven bars "from the glory of God to the Devil's tone." The Plumbutter is a drum machine filled with plastic knobs and outlets in rainbow colors, designed to reflect the tension between Baltimore and Cleveland.

While Blasser once brought together circuit boards with dumpster-dived wood and lead, he now uses high-grade copper, mulberry and sassafras. Blasser doesn’t like to name drop, but we do know when Matmos uses one of his sidrassi organs. He writes poems about the process of building instruments. He is basically, on some level, designing machines that “don't have a goal-based design.” How do they function? Very differently than most instruments. Aside from the tech talk, Blasser chats to us about Egyptian mythology, crocodile dick and dumpsters.

Peter Blasser gives a workshop in England with his instrument, the Shnth.

Noisey: When did you begin making musical instruments? Where did it start?
Peter Blasser: About 1996. I started making lutes and guitars and such. Actually, more like ancient Greek lyres and kitharas, reproductions. It wasn't until late in college, around 2000, that I started making synths. The early ones used big pieces of driftwood as their substrates. Unfortunately, they are gone.

How do you feel about the division between the analogue and digital? Is there a division?
There is a division but it is a valid question. In the end, it is all an emulation of something else. But I feel that the way I use digital is more of an emulation, and analog is, well, an analog. No data is stored in analog, it is just flown through... as in the flow itself is transient, ephemeral data that is only "sampled" or "observed" at a discrete point, like an audio output.

What about materials, what are your instruments made of, aside from lightning-fried tree scraps? You work with mulberry, walnut, sassafras and catalpha, right?
Circuits, lead. Really, I focus on those four woods you mentioned. Try to keep it locally sourced. In fact, I do, emphatically, keep it locally sourced. For a while though, I did dumpster dive for wood, and it came from around the world. Now, I pay for it from a real artisan in rural Maryland, “Jeremy.”

Why did you decide on the map between Baltimore and Cleveland as the design for the Plumbuter? Is there ‘drum and drama’ between these cities?
Good question. They are both kind post-industrial, and have a gritty, darkness to them. Providence is another interesting, dark city, but I guess it isn't a drum machine. I think there's a drum and drama in every city and it is the relationship between its core and its outlying regions. Drum usually resides downtown, and drama out in the woods, but I'm not saying it can't flip over, and have drum in the woods, drama downtown. Think of factories, though, they are very rhythmic. And suburbs have this organic feel but they are actually very regimented, whereas the rivers and hills out in the country represent truly gestural drama, folds that can't really be mapped on a grid.

The great Egyptian myth of Osiris inspired your process and the acceptance of imperfection. Is any musical instrument ever perfectly made?
He was cut up by his brother, and then put back together by Isis. His penis was lost so they used a crocodile penis. That is my mantra: “crocodile penis.” Yes, no instrument is perfectly made. You always have to put a crocodile penis on it at the end. Also, another way of thinking about Osiris is that he became depressed, and gray, like lead. He was Leaden. I think there is an ancient Egyptian lead sarcophagus or something. Anytime the alchemists mention lead, I listen up, because for years I used lead solder in the instruments. Now of course, I don't use it anymore. The standard solder used to be lead or tin, but now it is tin, silver and copper – a much more healthy mix.

Part of your inspiration comes from the Datura flower. How does it resonate today?
It has gone wild around my workshop. It is handsome, has broad, pungent and pubescent leaves, a large white flower at night, which has a great scent. The west side of Baltimore is like a cultural laboratory. Neighboring artist enclaves explore filth: filthy clothing, dirty spaces, cheap beer. The neighboring dumpster smells like dead bodies, so we need datura flowers to cover the smell. Also the root, when gnawed at by rats, causes intense negative hallucinations in them, thus deterring rats.

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