Celebrating 500 Articles on Signal

A Continued Exploration of the Past + Future of Electronic Music

Ryan Gaston · 10/26/23

At Perfect Circuit, today is a special day! It's the day that our blog, Signal—the blog that you are reading at this very moment—turns 500!

Okay, so that's sort of misleading...Signal has only been around since January of 2019, not since AD 1523, a time at which I expect a synthesizer blog would have gone largely under the radar. But, this is our 500th article—so we wanted to take a moment to reflect on the last almost-five years, and to use this milestone as an opportunity to look back at what we've done, and what we want to do in the future.

If you've been reading Signal for a while, you probably have a good idea of what we're all about—but if you're new to our small corner of the electronic-music-obsessed region of the internet, welcome! Treat this article like a primer: a way to get to know what we're all about, and how to get the most out of the resources on our site.

Meet the Editor

Hello! I'm Ryan, and I'm Signal's editor. Outside my work at Perfect Circuit, I'm a musician—one who is perhaps uncommonly obsessed with all of the unique possibilities that electronic musical instruments bring to the table. When I started working with Perfect Circuit, I was fresh out of school and had basically no idea where I was heading with my career: I just knew that, for the sake of my own sanity and satisfaction, I needed to do something related to synthesizers and electronic music.

[Above: Ryan Gaston at the Buchla 700; image courtesy of the Buchla Archives.]

So, I started working for Perfect Circuit in June of 2016. In the years since, I've done customer support, I've worked in their showroom, I've tested used gear, I've helped ship orders, I've helped make YouTube videos, and I still help to ensure that the Perfect Circuit website as a whole is up-to-date and running smoothly. I think that it's fair to say that I've been involved in a lot of different areas within the business. In late 2018, during some brainstorms about new projects we could take on, we arrived at the idea of making a blog—a resource that could answer questions, showcase exciting instruments, and generally offer inspiration to our customers.

Why Make a Blog?

Why make a blog? Admittedly, in early conversations about Signal, we really hesitated to use the word "blog" at all; for us, "blog" carries with it a lot of connotations that aren't exactly aligned with what we want Signal to be. We're not trying to give you all Tumblr-style updates on our lives. Moreover, we're not trying to churn out ten 150-word articles every day in hopes of picking up some website traffic about the day's synth news and gossip. There are plenty of sites out there that do that already, and do it with a speed and efficiency that I find downright bewildering and astounding.

The exciting thing for me is that, from the beginning, it was clear to us that Signal could be place to focus more on ideas than on constantly tracking new gear announcements. Of course, Perfect Circuit is a retailer that sells electronic music hardware—and basically all of us who work there are musicians who, indeed, love gear. So, we do write product reviews, and we do make content that features gear that we sell—though not exclusively, by any means. And when we do write specifically about new pieces of gear, we try to do it in a way that connects that gear to a bigger picture, or in a way that connects it to some historical context.

Why? At the end of the day, the simple fact is that products have a shelf life; ideas and inspiration do not. The odds are that the-hot-new-Eurorack-module-that-was-just-announced won't be available for sale in five years...and that-absolutely-game-changing-new-pedal probably won't actually be changing any games once some other company's new take on the same ideas is released. The ideas themselves, though? Those don't change as quickly. Those remain relevant—gear comes and goes, but no one is going to re-define what frequency shifting does; no one is going to re-invent subtractive synthesis; no one is going to erase the history of the instruments and music that we know and love. And, no matter what, what we perceive as being the driving force behind electronic music—the use of technology to alter the dynamics of human creativity, to reassess traditional values, to provide new avenues for expression, and to provide creative agency to people who might not otherwise have the same options to be creative—that cannot change, no matter how many product lifecycles elapse.

[Above: article thumbnail art by Andy DeGiulio for recent article Musical Notation for Modular Synthesizers, made in part with graphics from an original Serge Modular Music Systems product manual.]

So, from the beginning, at least one thing was clear to me: Signal could be a place to go a step beyond the typical product review platform and become an actual educational resource. What's more, because of its lack of direct affiliation with academia, we could choose to present information in a more approachable, fun, and human way than you'd be likely to find in a textbook or journal. We have striven to make all of our articles informative and fun: we present information like we're talking to our (nerdy) best friends, and we talk about ideas that we're actually excited about.

Signal's content is written by a mix of staff and freelance writers from a wide range of musical backgrounds. Some of us are guitarists, some are producers, some are live electronic performers, some are instrument designers. Some are academics, some are avid music history buffs...the list goes on. We try to represent a variety of musical perspectives and interests—and we always focus on representing the interests and personality of our staff.

We decide what to write about largely based on our own intuition. We follow our gut feelings about what types of things people might want to know about. We look for opportunities where popular narratives about art, music, and technology can be challenged, or where the course of a narrative could be skewed in a more interesting and thoughtful direction. We believe that there is more value—and more human value—in focusing on talking about music and ideas that excite us, rather than focusing on search engine optimization or sales-based metrics.

And, perhaps most importantly, we have a general belief that, if we share the things that we care about with legitimate enthusiasm, some of that enthusiasm might just transfer to our readers. What we want is to inspire our readers—to make them think—to treat them with a sense of respect and camaraderie—and by all means, to help them have fun making music. We believe that that is one of the most helpful, powerful, and generally good things that Perfect Circuit as a company can do.

Now that you've endured my extended rant, I want to point out some of the things we've done that we're particularly proud of. Over the course of 500 articles, we've covered a lot of ground—from product reviews to historical deep dives, explanations of esoteric music machines, interviews with popular musicians and obscure instrument designers, and much, much more. Here are some highlights.

Learning Synthesis

Learning Synthesis was one of the first big initiatives for Signal. It is a series of articles we assembled from 2019 to 2021, written by myself, Eldar Tagi (long-time Signal staff member), and Naomi Mitchell (of omiindustriies). We originally wrote Learning Synthesis in order to act as a general resource for learning about the materials and methods of modular synthesis in the age of Eurorack...and to reassert our belief that modular synthesizers are an excellent starting point for learning about synthesis and sound design as a whole, in a way that relies more on your personal artistic needs and intuitions than the typical fixed-architecture synthesizer might allow.

We endeavored to make Learning Synthesis as thorough and complete a resource as possible—going past the bare basics, and providing interesting historical context, peculiar patching tips, and musical ideas from outside the typical confines of "conventional" music. In the end, we feel that Learning Synthesis turned out to be a fun, thorough, and informative resource for anyone at any point in their synthesis journey.

What's next for Learning Synthesis? We're in the process of an edit of the entire series to update layouts, to include up-to-date product references, and to incorporate even more of what we have all learned in the years since its initial run. Keep your eyes open—we'll have the new version of Learning Synthesis up in early 2024.

Weird FX

Though Perfect Circuit is largely known as a purveyor of modular synthesizers, our passions extend into all corners of electronically-assisted music...so, it should come as no surprise that audio effects and signal processing are a particular point of fascination for us.

Of course, everyone knows the common audio effects and how they work—chorus, delay, reverb, distortion, etc. all now have their places, obvious use cases, and sonic baggage. But what about all those audio effects that haven't yet found a "standard" use? There are plenty of them. What is the "point" of a ring modulator? Why would anyone need a fixed filter bank? What the heck are you supposed to do with a frequency shifter? WTF is a phase-locked loop???

And what's the deal with some of the ever-more-common extensions of conventional audio effects, like pitch-shifting delays or granular delays?

[Above: article art for Weird FX 04: Phase Locked Loops.]

These questions—and our general enthusiasm about exploring the history and potential uses of tools that don't have a specific musical goal baked into them—led us to create Weird FX. In this series, we explore the outer edges of effect processing and sound design. Each article focuses on a specific type of effect, breaking down its history, its technical implementations, potential musical uses, and some examples of modern devices inspired by the concept(s) in question. I'm particularly proud of this series, because it taps directly into our strongest beliefs about electronic music: that new tools can open the door to new ways of thinking about art and music altogether.

What's next for Weird FX? After a bit of a hiatus, we've been preparing all-new content to add to this series. Keep your eyes peeled—in the coming months and into 2024, we'll have no fewer than eight new additions to this series, including deep dives into multi-tap delay, resonators, convolution, feedback, and more.

Synthesis Methods Explained

[Above: article thumbnail art for recent article What is Granular Synthesis?]

In recent series Synthesis Methods Explained, we focus less on gear and gear-specific techniques than it does on high-level concepts in electronic musical instrument design. Think of it as our general guidebook to the terminology surrounding standard synthesis techniques, along with a historical explanation about how and why these frameworks came to be.

We tackle everything from explanations of subtractive and additive synthesis, we dispel myths about FM synthesis, and we explore the future of synthesis by pondering how classic techniques are developing in the current day with modern technologies.

If you're looking for a place to get a general understanding of the history and current state of electronic music synthesis techniques, this is a perfect starting point.

Curated Buying Guides

In our curated selection of Buying Guides, we work with our internal staff and external experts to narrow in on some of our favorite current tools within distinct categories of gear. Each article contains brief summaries about what makes each piece of gear unique/special, and why we think that our specific selections belong among the "top" in their respective categories.

We endeavor for these articles to cover a wide variety of price points and experience sets, in order to help lower the barrier to entry for folks who are interested in taking their first steps into using hardware. Moreover, we attempt to explain that sometimes, the most interesting tools are not the most expensive tools, and that there are plenty of opportunities to explore your own creativity at any budget.

This is an ever-growing, ever-evolving set of resources...so feel free to come back and see what's new!

Special Topics

Though I've just outlined a few of our several article series as points of entry into our list of now 500 (and counting!) articles. However, the bulk of the articles on Signal are deep dives into one-off topics, or limited series exploring many aspects of a single concept. As such, I want to dedicate some space to mention some of our favorite (and fan favorite) articles, and to explain how they fit into the larger picture of Signal as a whole.

One area that we've explored extensively is the documentation/exploration of some of our favorite pieces of obscure and vintage music gear. Frequent Signal contributor Eldar Tagi wrote one of my favorite articles in our entire catalog, a feature all about the infamously bizarre Digitech XP-300 Space Station, including a history, technical explanation, and musings about how you might emulate its more peculiar behaviors with modern effects. Signal staff member and Patch Pal Jacob Johnson translated many of these ideas into sound, providing video examples of some of the many ideas proposed in the article itself.

I've personally written several similar articles, including deep dives into the ARP 2600 semi-modular synthesizer, the Oberheim Matrix-12 multi-timbral polysynth, filters in the Moog modular system, and more. More recently, Jacob Johnson also contributed two articles about the history of the Roland Space Echo series, as well as the bizarre and incredible Electro-Harmonix 16 Second Digital Delay.

We've also recently been diving into the weird and wonderful era of the 1990s—with dedicated articles about Akai's S Series rack samplers, the Korg Kaoss series, Roland's grooveboxes, and the infamous Roland D-Beam (thumbnail featured above).

Of course, we also often explore knotted topics about creativity, and reconciling the unique workflows of electronic instruments with the musical traditions that preceded them. This is beautifully exemplified in guest author Daniel Miller's recent article, Musical Notation for Modular Synthesizers.

We also endeavor to explore the human side of electronic music by assessing the history of our tools/techniques, and with interviews with contemporary artists and designers. My two articles East Coast Synthesis vs. West Coast Synthesis and What is West Coast Synthesis...Really? evaluate and deconstruct the emergent narrative surrounding the differences between Don Buchla and Bob Moog's initial approaches to electronic musical instrument design, with the aim of dispelling some myths and instead shining a light on some overlooked aspects of Buchla's unique artistry and creativity.

Some favorite recent interviews include Eldar Tagi's deep conversations with Peter Blasser of Ciat-Lonbarde and Tatsuya Takahashi of Korg.Berlin. We have also recently spoken with three heavy hitters in the world of popular electronic music: Carl Craig—a true techno pioneer; Andrew Huang, YouTuber and tremendously talented producer; Mr. Bill, prolific producer, DJ, and educator; and much, much more. Of course, these are just a few of the amazing people we've been able to talk to—and you can expect many more exciting interviews in the near future.

What's Next for Signal?

Look, I could go on telling you about highlights from Signal's nearly-five-year history. The fact is that I'm proud of everything that we've done, and I deeply appreciate the opportunity to share what I find special about the colorful world of electronic music. I don't take that for granted, and I thank everyone involved for making Signal what it is.

Moreover, I'm proud to have helped build a platform to help others share their perspective and passions: a place where esoteric instrument-makers can talk about what drives their creativity—where history-obsessed music experts can set the record straight—where thoughtful and forward-thinking musicians can share their vision for the future.

We plan to move forward with the same mission. We want to help as many people as possible find joy and inspiration through the unique potential of music technology...and we hope that, at least in some part, we've been able to help you along your own musical journey.

So, I offer you sincere thanks: thank you for being here, thank you for reading, and thank you for making music.

Do you have ideas for what we should write about next? Let us know! Feel free to reach out to make a suggestion for future topics to cover.