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Bright Sparks Vintage Synth Documentary / Concept Album Review

February 2, 2016

Synthesizer devotees received a huge and unexpected gift in their laps this week with the release of Bright Sparks. The total Bright Sparks project consists of a concept album by I Monster and a thorough 2+ hour documentary covering eight of the most influential and inspirational vintage electronic instrument companies and their inventors: Moog, Buchla, ARP, Chamberlin, Mellotron, Electronic Music Studios (EMS), Electronic Dream Plant (EDP) and Freeman.

I Monster made its album Bright Sparks first, but wanted to showcase it in a more compelling way. So the band contacted vintage synth curators Dave Spiers and Chris Macleod, whose company GForce Software creates highly regarded emulations of classic instruments such as the M-Tron Pro, impOSCar2, Minimonsta and other plug-ins.

They decided to complement the eight tracks of the album with a documentary. While each each of the album’s eight tracks focuses on the instruments and the stories behind one company, so did the movie break itself into eight sections, each focusing on interviews with the key inventors, employees and musicians who have experience with that company.

Along the way, we get a lot of very technical insights into early musical inventions, humanizing details about quarrels both personal and legal and some emotionally touching stories and testimonials about how these pioneering instruments and inventors changed people’s lives.

From Herbert Deutsch’s intimate insights into creating the first Moog synthesizer with Dr. Bob Moog, including the invention of the voltage controlled oscillator (VCO) and the attack-decay-sustain-release (ADSR) envelope, to the drama that unfolded between the tape-machine keyboard companies Chamberlin and Mellotron, the Bright Sparks documentary captures many of these great stories for posterity and sadly, just in the nick of time in one case.

“One person I was determined to locate and who’d been elusive from the MI scene for too long was Alan R. Pearlman [of ARP],” Spiers told us. “So when [former Keyboard staffer and author] Mark Vail kindly put me in touch… we jumped on a plane to Boston and spent a couple of amazing days with him. It was quite literally a life changing moment for me. Here was a man whose father and grandfather had died of heart conditions in their 40s, and yet Alan was a sprightly and sharp 89-year-old.”

“At the same time, we drove to New Hampshire to visit Denis Colin [former inventor at ARP]. Again, another fascinating individual who sadly died soon after we returned.”

Spiers hopes to continue the project with bonus clips online of Colin and possibly other inventors, such as Don Buchla, who was ill when Spiers tried to meet him for the documentary.

The film also features interviews from some synthesizer luminaries from the bands Goldfrapp, Ultravox, Nine Inch Nails and Underworld. Here we get some more really cool stories about the artist/instrument relationship, including Alessandro Cortini’s saga with Buchla, and how Rick Smith of Underworld wrote and recorded one of his most famous tracks in one day with the ARP 2600 and could never recall the patch again. But Smith was never bitter; in fact, he regards the 2600 with a clear sense of awe when he contemplates that the instrument came about first and foremost simply because they wanted an alternative to the Moog that stayed in tune better. “The journey starts then when you just take one step,” Smith said. “Good things come out of a good heart that’s obsessed.”

Back to I Monster’s album. It plays like eight vignettes dedicated to the sound and stories of each instrument company. Whenever lyrics are so blatantly referential and expository, they tread on dangerous ground. However, the band pulls it off for the most part, and the Bright Sparks album not only abounds with ear candy, but it’s quite listenable for multiple spins. On the one hand, each track showcases iconic sounds, such as the immediately recognizable and unassailable sounds of Moogs and Mellotrons, the wonderfully bizarre and hard to tame Buchlas, the super sci-fi burbles from EMS and the dirty and buzzy sound of the low-cost, punk-rock synths from EDP. Yet on the other hand, I Monster carefully encapsulates those sounds into catchy and often era-specific songs.

You can purchase the album/documentary package for 15.99 British pounds (about $23US on the day of publication), and that entitles you to download the album in WAV, AAC and MP3 formats, and gives you three resolutions for the film, including beautiful high-def, so you can soak in all the luscious shots of some truly rare synth beasts. Much of the film was shot in Spiers’ own enviable studio, and he took on the project as a labor of love.

“My dream is to at least recoup our costs, so we can then try to garner interviews with some other industry legends,” Spiers told us. “The plan is to build a living and continual archive of these human stories.”

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