In the 1970s, Don Tavel invented a pitch-tracking synthesizer called the Resynator. Now, 30 years later, his daughter Alison — born just 10-weeks prior to his accidental death in 1988 — discovered the only working model left. Setting out to connect with the father she never had the opportunity to know, Alison began tracing the history of the Resynator, and the people who knew and loved it.
Can you tell us a bit about your father’s background? He invented and designed the Resynator, but was he primarily a musician, or an engineer?
He actually wasn’t an engineer. His partner, the founder of Mu-Tron — Mike Beigel — was. My father was primarily a guitarist but could play a bunch of different instruments. I even have one of his old saxophones, and I know he had a sitar. At a young age he was also very interested in how computers could be used for music and art, and that’s what he studied at college. At that point, he was the first person at Indiana University to study it and was the first person to do a ‘build your own learning’ program. So he was really interested in synthesizers, and I think in college he was helping to sell Oberheims maybe as a freelancer – but this was in the 1970s and a lot of these stories are hard to verify. They have been told to me by various different people.
So what actually is the Resynator?
The Resynator is an analog subtractive synthesizer. My father invented the code that runs it – the pitch-tracking code and the code for the timbral image modulator section and a few other parts of the instrument. It was something he called CM synthesis, which stood for Complex Modulation. He was trying to figure out how to incorporate computers into music, something he also did with art. He developed something called an “animation station” that used computers to enhance and speed up rotoscoping.
Is it correct that he was some way involved with the development of the MIDI standard?
The Resynator wasn’t MIDI controlled, it used control voltage. Actually, there are two inputs – CV and pitch-tracking. I’m more experienced with the pitch-tracking, which it does so beautifully. I don’t have a background in music or synthesis, but I am learning all these terms! So, in fact, my father would have said that the Resynator was the precursor to MIDI.
Did he set out to solve a specific problem by designing the instrument, or was developing the Resynator more a labor of love?
It was probably a combination of both. His company was called Musico – he was a one-man company – and one of his slogans was “for musicians, by musicians”. He could play his guitar through the Resynator – or any instrument really – and make it sound like something else. I think in the beginning he was just trying to make something for himself. He was just out of college and had this knowledge about what computers could do. He did have plans to put this into production – there were a lot of ads – but I’ve met very few people apart from Peter Gabriel who have ever played one. He sold three to Peter and I think had plans to make and sell many more. I found a letter he wrote to Mike Beigel about making 200-500 units. But he was just one guy. At the same time, competition from bigger companies was increasing.
The problem with doing small productions runs is that the units inevitably end up being expensive to buy. There’s no economy of scale.
Yes. And it seems like he had a huge ad budget. But in terms of the other side of the business, I am still trying to figure that out. Production stopped in 1982 for the Resynator – which was monophonic – but then he started working on the Hexynator which was a polyphonic version. There was only one of those, and it didn’t make it into production. At least with the Resynator a few units made it out into the world.
Do you know how many Resynators were produced?
Based on what I know, three went to Peter Gabriel. My dad had one and Mike had one, so only around five or six units in total. Certainly, no more than ten, and the only one I have found is the one that was in my grandma’s attic. It was in an old box with old packing material and I was afraid to turn it on. I got in touch with Mike who told me not to turn it on, so I got it to him and it did power on, but most of it just didn’t work. It took about nine months to get it up and running.
He was the only person who could help, given that he’d built the unit.
Yes. It was so cool for him to open that lid and revisit history from 30 years before. It made him proud of the work he had done on the synth.
So you now had a working unit. How did you begin to connect with some of the artists that appear in the documentary?
One artist always led to another. I’ve been working with a musician called Grace Potter as her tour assistant for some years. I brought it to her first – her husband is a producer and he played guitar through it so I could hear what it could do. Everyone who used it would tell me it was really expressive. I heard that Gotye had resurrected a synth called the Ondioline and I managed to get in touch with him. Because the Resynator can accept signal from any instrument and not just the keyboard, it opens it up to all kinds of synth enthusiasts, not just those with keyboard skills. Grace has opened up a lot of doors for me and has introduced me to a lot of people, like Mike Gordon the bass player from Phish. When I was in London, I met Will Gregory from Goldfrapp and Adrian Utley from Portishead in the big room at Real World Studios as we were making Resynator demos. Ethan Johns also came in from the next room and started playing through it too! So word of mouth has been very important.
They must have been really interested, given that it’s basically a one-off.
The thing that’s both beautiful and frustrating about the Resynator is that you might not get the exact same sound out of it twice. I mean, you kind of can, but it will never be exactly the same from one day to the next.
You’ve been working with The Loop Loft to incorporate the sound of the Resynator into some of their samples.
I met Ryan Gruss from The Loop Loft about two years ago when we had a fundraiser for the documentary. He was invited by the Sound City Studios crew and we met and stayed in touch, but we didn’t connect until recently when I was thinking about how to bring the Resynator back. At first I wanted to reproduce the original units – and I still do, but it’s very expensive and at this point it’s just me working alone. Plus, there are a lot of obsolete parts that aren’t made any more.
What I can do more is sample it and make loops from it. That’s just the start really – later we can talk about software and hardware versions, which I do also want to do. But a cool first step is making a sample library and spreading the sound. If people hear something really cool from it, they’ll be more excited to get the plug-in, then maybe a hardware version.
When I met Peter Gabriel I asked him what he would do in order to bring the Resynator back and he gave me some awesome advice. He said “if your dad were alive today he wouldn’t be going back to resurrect something that’s 30 years old. He’d be looking to the future, and the future is in software”. Ryan was so enthusiastic – not just about the synth but about the whole story. It’s more than just a synth, it’s my dad and his story and I want to release products that my dad would be proud of.
Does The Loop Loft library exist yet?
I just finished the Kickstarter so I haven’t had time to do it yet. Because I only have one unit and I keep lending it to people, I have to actually schedule some time to get it to them and do the recording. Actually, he brought it over to Butch Vig and we didn’t record with it but I think it won him over and they’re going to use it on a project they’re working on. I want to do a Resynator line within The Loop Loft’s catalogue.
How close is the documentary to completion?
There’s still some more fundraising to do but about 75% of the filming is done. Probably the rest of this year will be spent completing the film, then next year we will go into post-production. I want to do some rotoscoping because that’s what my dad was into. And I want to find a composer who can use the Resynator to score the film, which might take a while. Then I’m hoping it will get a release in 2021. I’ve never made a film before but it’s so cool that the synth community and companies like Native are interested in the story.
You can find more information about the Reysonator over at the Kickstarter page here.