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As musicians rediscover synthesizers, this 16-year-old makes her own

BY   June 2, 2017 at 11:56 AM EDT
Mack Bartsch builds a “drummer from another mother” synthesizer as part of an engineering class at Moogfest, a technology and music festival in Durham, North Carolina. Photo by Andrew Bossone

Mack Bartsch builds a “drummer from another mother” synthesizer as part of an engineering class at Moogfest, a technology and music festival in Durham, North Carolina. Photo by Andrew Bossone

Mack Bartsch doesn’t just make electronic music: the 16-year-old DJ also makes electronic instruments. Bartsch, who goes by the stage name spaceprodigi, recently constructed a synthesizer as part of an engineering class at Moogfest, a technology and music festival in Durham, North Carolina. She owns five synthesizers in total, two of which she built herself, and her first album of electronic dance music comes out this June.

“I just find it really fun to create my own synthesizers,” Bartsch told the NewsHour’s Jeffrey Brown. “It’s just really cool to get to build it, and I enjoy soldering and electrical engineering. It’s just really fun.”

About 26,000 people attended Moogfest, named after Robert Moog, an influential inventor of an analog synthesizer, which creates sounds by shaping electricity into waveforms using oscillators.

In the 1960s, analog synthesizers built by Moog and Donald Buchla landed in the hands of big acts making popular music, like The Beatles and Pink Floyd. Synth continued to be widely used in popular music throughout the 1980s by acts such as U2 and The Police.

“Suddenly, people had an instrument where they could design sounds, craft sounds, that no one in the world had ever heard before,” said Emmy Parker, the creative director of Moogfest. “Those sounds became the sound of the future.”

A few decades later, computers made creating music widely accessible, and synthesizers fell out of favor — until a resurgence in the last few years. Now, musicians are rediscovering the synthesizer’s ability to create unique sounds. Bartsch, a high school sophomore in Houston, says she loves the “organic feel of analog synthesizers.”

Performers using synthesizers this year at Moogfest included the indie rock band Animal Collective, Syrian wedding singer-turned pop star Omar Souleyman and SURVIVE, which was nominated for two Grammy Awards for scoring the Netflix hit “Stranger Things.”

The intersection of technology and art makes up the heart of the festival, which was previously held in New York and Asheville, North Carolina, where Moog synthesizers are manufactured. The organizers eventually settled on Durham and expanded the events beyond music to include lectures from scientists and futurists, as well as discussions with musicians.

“At Moogfest, the music revolution will be synthesized” reports NewsHour’s Jeffrey Brown.

This year’s festival also featured Suzanne Ciani, a pioneer in creating electronic sounds with synthesizers. She eventually abandoned the synthesizer to return to her roots in classical piano, but came back to creating electronic music a few years ago. Nicknamed the “Diva of the Diode,” Ciani looks at her use of technology and music as an alternative form of communication. This year at Moogfest, she received a lifetime achievement award.

“I’m having a conversation with the machine,” she said. “There’s something to be said about all music being some translation of our language and our way of communicating. It’s a language. This is a new language.”

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