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Record Machine: Wendy Carlos and The Well-Tempered Synthesizer

When I was looking through some of my inherited vinyl collection and I saw the title The Well-Tempered Synthesizer, I thought, “Well, now I have to know what something called that sounds like.”

Turns out, a lot like this:

W Carlos and The Well-Tempered Synthesizer album cover

YouTube is not particularly forthcoming with songs from the album itself, and one is more likely to find tributes uploaded by other synth players. Released in 1969 by Colombia, this collection of classical tunes ala synth made me feel like I was at a RenFaire in the 1980s – or perhaps a bizarro episode of Downton Abbey. Walter-now-Wendy Carlos also contributed music to the films A Clockwork Orange, The Shining, and the 1982 version of Tron – all unusual in their own wonderful ways.

This album is a follow-up to Switched-On Bach, another synth-filled album, which won 3 Grammys in 1969, including Classical Album of the Year. Somewhat unsurprisingly, that album is sitting in my dad’s old collection too. I’m not sure how he acquired these two, as it’s not really the sort of music to which he normally listened. Perhaps he found the idea amusing and found them for cheap. I’ve certainly purchased records for similar reasons.

Particularly funny was this note on the back:

“Important: This record has critical stereo balance. For maximum enjoyment, please balance your speakers by using the test tones on Side 1, Band 1. You will hear four tones in the exact center, followed by Left, Right, Left, Right.”

W Carlos and the Well-Tempered Synthesizer back cover
(Click through for more detail.)

Yeah, sorry. My current crappy turntable is a mono one-speaker deal. I’m sure the balance is quite lovely over headphones instead. I’ve recently learned that “Well-Tempered” might be a reference to J.S. Bach’s “The Well-Tempered Clavier,” but when I first saw this album’s title, all I could do was think of bad jokes like, “So what does an Ill-Tempered Synthesizer sound like, and would I want to meet one in a dark alley?”

I wouldn’t necessarily say I enjoyed this album, or that I would be in the habit of playing it, but I do like that this music exists. Synthesizers are an unusual animal, and anyone who can wrangle them well earns my respect.

Now, a little bit about this new music column of mine: I inherited a rather sizable record collection when my dad died, full of everything from this semi-forgotten classical offering to Emmylou Harris to Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers (Yes, with the Warhol-zipper cover; just you wait). Besides those full shelves, I’ve amassed a small collection of my own,which has more contemporary offerings mixed with some of the ’80s alternative that never crossed my dad’s radar. For as long as my P-Mag Unicorn Overlords are willing to indulge me, I’ll be talking about my vinyl treasures. Do come along for the ride.

By Sara Habein

Sara Habein is the author of Infinite Disposable, a collection of microfiction, and her work has appeared on The Rumpus, Pajiba and Word Riot, among others. Her book reviews and other commentary appear at Glorified Love Letters, and she is the co-manager of Electric City Creative.

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