Synth heaven in the Science Museum stores

arp4This week, I went to the Science Museum stores which are brimming with musical treasures.

I had a close look at some of the early synths, samplers and other delights that are safely under lock and key, including three Mellotrons, a Fairlight CMI, Wurlitzer Sideman and Arp 2500 modular synth. I’m writing a short piece, exploring how these machines changed the way we perform, produce and listen to music. For now though, here are some technical notes and snaps, taken rather hastily during my visit. I’ve also plundered YouTube for examples of these machines in action.

Sadly, I wasn’t able to plug any of these monsters in. While the rest of us musicians are busy playing – and thus destroying! – our vintage instruments, the Science Museum instruments are conserved in a dormant state. You can think of these as reference instruments – they’ll give musicians of the future a chance to see an Arp, Mellotron, Fairlight or Sideman in all its original glory*.

Tech notes and pictures

Arp 2500 Modular Synth

4-octave carillon

Fairlight CMI

Mellotron

Pyrophone

Wurlitzer Sideman

*Sadly, life isn’t that simple. If you switch off an electrical machine for too many years, it might never work again. Capacitors decay; tapes turn to dust. Arguably, there’s little point in preserving a ‘dead’ musical instrument if you care about the way it sounds, how it was played and how it influenced music culture. So the question of  whether to switch on or not has yet to be settled by historians and curators. I suppose it’s important that some instruments are conserved and only switched on very occasionally, while others are being worn out by the musicians who love them.