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Three Questions: The Resynator Synthesizer and Alison Tavel

From the 'zine archives: This interview was featured in Issue Two!

Three Q's with Alison Tavel about her documentary film, Resynator.

alison tavel

Synth History: Can you describe for the folks that don't know, what exactly the Resynator is and what it means to you?

Alison: The Resynator is an instrument-controlled synthesizer invented by my late father Don Tavel around 1979. It’s an analog/digital, pitch-tracking, monophonic, rack-mount synth. It can digitally track anything from the lowest note on a bass to the highest note on a piccolo which is then converted to analog for the oscillators and filter sections. One thing that makes it very intriguing though, is the Timbral Image Modulator section which is made up of 8 shapes, some created by my father. Each shape is meant to emulate a different kind of instrument or sound. My father died in a car crash when I was just ten weeks old in 1988, so I never got to know him. When I was 25 I decided to dig out the Resynator which had lived in my grandmother’s attic since he had died in order to try to figure out what it really was. I got in touch with Mike Beigel of Mu-Tron, who I found out had engineered the Resynator, and he helped me resurrect it. In this time I started learning new stories about my dad that I’d not heard before and over time I realized that... if I ever wanted to actually get to know Don, the Resynator would be how I accomplish that. I’ve been filming this whole process because originally I was thinking I would make a mini-doc about the resurrection of the synth, but then I quickly realized it was becoming something more than that. So now there will be a feature documentary about this whole adventure. For me, it’s brought a lot of understanding of both Don and myself, and some definite closure.

I believe he had about six units made based on some records I found. Three went to the UK for sure, but as far as I know, I have the only one left. There were plans to make a small run of 200 units but it never came to fruition. When I was in the attic digging out the Resynator I found enough parts and PCBs to make about 5-6 more, so I have been working with Mike and an incredible technician, Richard Lingenberg, to help me do that.


Synth History: You met Peter Gabriel who owned a couple Resynators back in the 1980s, what has the response been like when you talk to musicians about your father's synthesizer?

Alison: Through all of my digging to learn more about the Resynator and my dad, I found a letter from Peter Gabriel’s then-synth distribution company SYCO Systems confirming the purchase of three Resynator units in 1981! I did everything I could to get in touch with him and found out he did indeed remember the Resynator, although his memory on it was vague. He said he had it at his Ashcombe House for maybe a day or two but ultimately the units lived at the SYCO showroom in London. I’ve been told it’s possible that both Jon Anderson of Yes and Brian Eno had or used one of these units, and just recently I was able to connect with Jon who confirmed he had used one back in the day.

In the early days before I really knew how to work the Resynator, I would pass it along to musicians and some immediately were drawn to it, and some were a bit baffled. I really relied on my friends like Brian Kehew [The Moog Cookbook] and Eric Valentine to help me understand it. Now that I can navigate it myself, the demos are a lot smoother. I think everyone comes out of the demos realizing it’s much more complex than they’d imagined. Animalistic, human, expressive & dense are all words that have been used to describe it. My favorite quote so far is from the wonderful Will Gregory of Goldfrapp who said, “[Don Tavel] had a vision there that’s not dated… you might say it was ahead of its time. It’s a great bit of machinery and a great idea. You can see there’s a great imagination behind it.”

My dad had a list of accomplished musicians he was trying to work with on this project and I’m trying to pick up where he left off... I think Mark Mothersbaugh, Herbie Hancock, Stevie Wonder, etc. With insights from people like this, the capabilities of the Resynator can be fully realized, as well as what improvements would need to be made in order to one day release a new Resynator out onto the market. That was my dad’s ultimate goal before he died, and I’m happy to say we're actually working on two different versions now.

Alison's father and inventor of the Resynator, Don Tavel.

Synth History: What is the process like for making music with the synth?

Alison: This unit is from the late 70s and was resurrected from an attic where it lived for 25 years. We tried to keep as many original parts as possible, so with that, there are going to be some beautiful things and some frustrating things, depending on how you look at it.

Every once in a while you turn it on and it decides not to track. Sometimes you play the same note over and over and each time it catches a different overtone from that note and outputs something different. Sometimes it glitches. My favorite example is from when we ran a snare sample through it and each time it tracked something new from it, even though each sample was digitally identical. You ultimately have to have patience and understanding, but with that you can find total inspiration and creation that is pretty special in my opinion.

My partner Matt Musty and I decided to try creating some cover songs with it this past year. I played the Resynator and he did everything else! Similar to how Switched-On Bach helped people understand the Moog, and synths in general by covering Bach, I thought this could be a great way to answer everyone’s question of, “so what does it sound like?”

I decided to cover three Tom Petty songs from the Wildflowers era when I found out that he and Rick Rubin had decided not to use any synths on that album, so I thought it would be interesting to hear some all-synth versions and specifically all Resynator. Only A Broken Heart featuring Matt Berninger from The National and Ronboy, Honey Bee featuring Grace Potter and Somewhere Under Heaven featuring Ruby Amanfu are all one hundred percent Resynator and vocals.

Some of the Resynator sounds require a bit of sound design after they are captured. Some need to be tuned or pitched differently, or have some compression, reverb etc., but no additional sounds were added. Even the drum parts! The covers are all in the same key and tempo as the originals, but they couldn’t sound more different. The Resynator just creates this other feeling.

Synth History Exclusive.

Interview conducted by Danz.


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