Inside an unassuming building in west Winter Park, Joseph Rivers prepares to demonstrate the frequency response characteristics of his main mixing room. In this specially configured chamber there are bass "cannons" built into the walls, and finely attenuated monitors power up silently, waiting patiently for the signal which they must faithfully reproduce. Rivers looks over with a grin, and asks, "You like electronic music, right?"
With that, the first ringing notes of Prodigy's "Smack My Bitch Up" sneak out of the tweeters. As the round, clean bass line kicks in, it's clear that the engineering that has gone into building this room has paid off. The air vibrates with the low frequencies (as do any loose articles of clothing) but no audible distortion is present, even at the extreme volume.
Rivers has used this room since 1992 to record and mix albums for many artists, from the local electronic act Prophecy and Southern rockers Molly Hatchet to Rocket 88 to former Yes/Moody Blues keyboardist Patrick Moraz. Operating under the quite appropriate moniker of Audio Playground, the complex boasts three studios, fully equipped with an enormous amount of high-end recording equipment, both digital and analog. It's a facility that can clearly handle just about any kind of recording, for just about any kind of artist. However, the most fascinating thing about the Audio Playground isn't the studios, the vocal booth or the mixing facilities. It's the museum.
Audio Playground has the largest publicly accessible collection of synthesizers and electronic music equipment in the United States. With more than 1,300 pieces, many of which are rare or one of a kind, Rivers has pieces of vintage gear stacked up in every available space in the hallways, in the studios yet most of the pieces are housed in a huge museum room, set up from floor to ceiling.
About 14 years ago, Rivers found himself released from the Air Force, but legally unable to apply his specialized training in robotics in the private sector. Music had always interested him, so he took jobs as a DJ at clubs and private parties. This interest eventually became a full-time job as he accepted a DJ position at a Dallas radio station. But radio was not where his passion lay, so Rivers decided to pursue an education in recording at Orlando's Full Sail Real World Education in 1990. By 1991, he had graduated, and began building his studio in Winter Park. Along the way, he decided to devote some of the space to displaying his vintage synthesizer gear.
Starting with his small personal collection, he added piece after piece, to the tune of almost a hundred every year. Scouring garage sales, basements, attics and, more recently, eBay for the remains of early synthesizers, controllers and drum machines, he carted away these obsolete treasures for repair and preservation. "I started doing it because of the sound; it's a certain sound of the era," he says. "Now it's being noticed and being duplicated digitally, as best they can, but when I first started, `the gear` was all being dumped … people were saying, 'Oh, I've got to get into this digital thing,' and everybody was forgetting the original sound, and after a while, people started going, 'You know, I miss that sound.'"
Archiving is an important task for any museum, and Rivers takes it seriously. Each time he gets an addition to his collection that is functional, or repairs a broken unit, he takes the time to preserve the sounds of the device by recording a complete collection of those sounds in high resolution. After all, many of the devices in his collection rely on electronic components transistors, vacuum tubes and the like that are no longer manufactured, and thus spare parts can be hard to come by. Ultimately, his plan is to prepare interactive exhibits that will allow visitors to listen to the sounds that each device is capable of, building up a website that will enable people to discover the basics of synthesis and explore the various instruments in the collection. His website, www.keyboardmuseum.com (which is offline as of this writing), will contain Flash applications that demonstrate how many famous instruments work, such as the famous Hammond B3, the Wurlitzer and the Fender Rhodes electric piano. Rivers says, "People will be able to come to the website and play an instrument that was made in 1940."
TEACHER, CAN I TOUCH THAT?
While that online exhibition will be widely accessible, visitors to the physical museum can get a more personal, guided tour by Rivers, who takes time to expound upon the more interesting pieces. Care to trace the evolution of that most ubiquitous of hip-hop production instruments, the Akai MPC? Rivers has an example of each variant. Want to know which synth was the first to include a pitch bend wheel? (It was the Minimoog, in 1971.) Curious about who made the first guitar-synth? Rivers will tell you it was Roland, with their GR-500, and will show you one, as well as its superior derivative, the GR-300.
There's an entire section devoted to key-tars, those aesthetically questionable keyboards shaped like guitars, popularized in the '80s and now highly sought after by postmodern synth-pop performers for their ironic value. There's a mountain of drum machines, a plethora of controllers, as well as devices that store audio samples optically on film, magnetically on tape and in solid state EPROMs. Practically every major development in electronic instruments is represented, from the very first polyphonic synthesizers to the latest Roland Grooveboxes.
Education is an important goal of the museum, says Rivers. His involvement with Full Sail has not stopped with his graduation he lectures students about synthesis and the history of electronic musical instruments. He even has an "educational" version of the Korg MS-20 (one of only 20 that exist in the United States), which is a wall-mountable pedagogical instrument used to demonstrate the fundamentals of synthesizer construction and use. And Rivers sees his museum as a way to interest younger children in music as well. "We do have tours for schools, and children come through, but we'd like to make it more accessible, and let them play with things theremins and things so it's teaching."
What about the future? Rivers has plans to expand the museum by adding a second story to the building which will allow him to more comfortably house his ever-growing collection, but since he supports his museum solely through donations and funds raised by the recording studio, this might take some time. At the moment, tours are by appointment only, so as not to interfere with recording sessions. He says that in the near future, he might start asking for a small donation for admission to the museum, to support his restoration and archival efforts. Of course, occasionally he'll sell off a vintage piece or two, but only as long as he's got more than one of that particular model for the display.
For now, though, Rivers will continue to grow his collection and indulge his passion for the technology of music. Artists come from all over the world to record in his facility because of the sheer scope of the equipment at their fingertips. "It's been helpful to us in the recording studio because we can bring up any of these old sounds off of original pieces instead of having to try to sit there and emulate it," he notes.
His passion for music and the machines used to create it is infectious. After all, every keyboard from the newest high-tech Kurzweil production station to the lowliest children's Casio toy piano has a story; taken together, those stories form a large part of the history of contemporary music. Indeed, by making the evolution of musical technology explicit in his synthesizer museum, Joseph Rivers demonstrates that not only does music drive technological innovation, but technology drives musical innovation as well.
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Some of the most interesting pieces in the Audio Playground collection include:
The Oberheim Eight Voice
The first true "polyphonic" synthesizer, this enormous keyboard actually has eight different mono-synth modules that are hardwired together, and can store 16 patches per voice. First produced in 1977, the Oberheim was used by such legends as Styx, Rush and Herbie Hancock.
The Technos Axcel Resynthesizer
An extremely rare model (only a few were made in 1980), the Technos Axcel was an exercise in additive re-synthesis. You'd feed it a sample, then it would algorithmically re-create the sound using oscillators, and the resulting sounds could be played back repitched via the keyboard.
The Wurlitzer Sideman
The world's first "drum machine," it had 10 different drum sounds and 10 preset rhythms, each of which was delineated by contact points on the outside of a rotating drum, much like a music box. The electronics are all vacuum-tube-based, and the unit was encased in wood, designed to be mounted on the side of an organ for accompaniment.
The Optigan Music Maker
This ugly brown and off-white machine was interesting because it had so many voices and used sampled sounds, but was completely mechanical. The sounds were stored on optical disks that looked like records there were clear waveforms in the plastic, and light shone through them against a light bar, much like an audio track running along the side of a piece of film. Always in tune with itself, but never in tune with anything else, this massively heavy music machine of the early '70s has been used by Devo, Tom Waits, Steve Fisk and, of course, the San Diego duo Optiganally Yours.