Best female modular synthesist and electronic music producers -
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Best female modular synthesist and electronic music producers

From intergalactic cinema scores to the iconic Doctor Who theme music, we take a deep dive into the best female modular synthesists of the 21st century.

Suzanne Ciani, Imogen Heap, Lisa Bella Donna, and Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith are at the forefront of electronic music production.

These women have not only pioneered but have pushed the boundaries and expanded the possibilities of what can be achieved with modular synthesizers and electronic music production techniques.

With experimentation and intuition, they have made significant contributions to the genre and are continuously changing the game as we know it. Without further ado, let’s take a look at the best modular synthesist pioneers and current festival favourites in electronic music.

ciani
Suzanne Ciani

Delia Derbyshire

The woman who started it all, is without a doubt Delia Derbyshire, a British musician, and composer who was best known for her pioneering work with electronic music during the 1960s. She is particularly noted for her electronic realization of the Doctor Who theme music for the BBC in 1963.

She was a member of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, an experimental studio that produced sound effects and theme music for BBC radio and television programs.

Delia’s work with electronic music and her use of unconventional recording techniques and avant-garde sound design have inspired many musicians, composers, and producers in the electronic music scene.

delia derbyshire

She used a variety of tools to create her electronic music, including tape machines, oscillators, filters, and sound-on-sound techniques. Delia also used a variety of software and effects processors to manipulate and process the sounds she created. Some of the specific tools she is known to have used include the VCS3 synthesizer, the EMS Synthi 100, and the Roland RE-201 Space Echo.

Delia did not release any albums during her lifetime as most of her work was done as a composer for television and radio programs, and was not released commercially. However, some of her notable compositions include her electronic realization of the Doctor Who theme music, which was used as the opening theme for the BBC’s long-running science fiction series from 1963 to 1989. Some of her other notable works include “The Delian Mode,” “An Electric Storm,” and “The Dreams.”

In recent years, some of her previously unreleased material has been compiled and released as albums, “Delia Derbyshire: The BBC Radiophonic Music” and “Delia Derbyshire: archive recordings 1963 – 1973”.

Her work was highly influential in the development of electronic music and her use of unconventional recording techniques and avant-garde sound design continues to be celebrated by musicians, composers, and producers today, and her works are cited as an influence by a number of electronic musicians, including Brian Eno, Aphex Twin, and the duo of Autechre.

Her influence can be heard in the work of electronic music pioneers Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Schaeffer, and BBC Radiophonic Workshop member Daphne Oram. Many of these musicians and composers have acknowledged their debt to her and her pioneering work, and her legacy continues to be celebrated by musicians and fans of electronic music today.

Check out the brilliant little doco The Delian Mode below:

Suzanne Ciani

Suzanne Ciani is an American composer, pianist, and electronic music pioneer who has been active in the music industry since the 1970s. You would be hard-pressed to find anyone that hasn’t heard one of her sounds.

Ciani began her career as a classically trained pianist and later became interested in electronic music, starting to work with modular synthesizers in the 1970s. Throughout her career, she has released several albums of her own music, which showcase her mastery of the modular synthesizer and her experimental approach to music.

suzanne ciani
ELECTRIC LIGHTS 2022

Ciani is perhaps best known for her work as a commercial sound designer, particularly for creating the iconic “pop and pour” sound for Coca-Cola in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Ciani created the iconic sound using a Buchla modular synthesizer and a sound-on-sound tape recorder.

The award-winning “pop and pour” sound was groundbreaking, as it was one of the first examples of a brand using a musical jingle or sound effect to create an emotional association with the product. It is considered to be one of the most famous and recognizable sounds in advertising history, and it played an important role in establishing the use of sound design and sound branding in the advertising industry.

Ciani has also created soundscapes and scores for several films, television shows, and Atari video games.

suzanne ciani home studio

Her work is often characterized by its emphasis on melody, harmony and structure, and she has been recognized for her ability to create music that is both experimental and accessible.

Some of the tools that she is known to use include:

  • Modular synthesizers: such as Buchla and Moog systems. She often incorporates live patches and real-time manipulation of sound in her performances.
  • Analog synthesizers: classic models like the Moog and Roland synthesizers.
  • Samplers: both hardware and software, to create her own samples and manipulate them in her productions.
  • Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs): to compose, record, and produce her music, such as Ableton Live and Logic Pro.
  • Audio effects: Ciani uses reverb, delay, and distortion. She is also known to use granular synthesis techniques to create unique soundscapes and textures.
  • Field recordings: sounds from nature or from her surroundings.
  • Sound-on-sound recording: This allows her to layer multiple tracks of sound on top of each other.

Ciani is also known for her work as a music technology advocate, she founded the company Seventh Wave, which is dedicated to the promotion of electronic music and the development of new music technologies. She has also been a regular speaker at music technology conferences and events, and has been honored for her contributions to the music industry, receiving the Visionary Award from the Association for Electronic Music.

“A Life in Waves” is a 2017 documentary that explores Ciani’s life and career, from her early days as a classically trained pianist to her work as an electronic music pioneer and her later career as a commercial sound designer. Check out the trailer below.

Lisa Bella Donna

Recording artist, composer, modular synthesist, sound designer, and clinician Lisa Bella Donna is the most prolific female synth virtuoso of all time. Between 2020 and 2022 she put out 25 albums – and people think Prince was productive!

Lisa has decades of experience as a multi-instrumentalist, session musician, and educator, as well as being renowned for developing extensive techniques with musique concreté –  a type of music composition that utilizes recorded sounds as raw material where sounds are often modified through the application of audio signal processing and tape techniques and brought together in a montage – microtonal music, orchestration & film composition.

lisa bella donna moog grandmother

What Lisa is most well known for, is her relationship with Moog, just google it, and you’ll see what we mean. Lisa has a host of videos on the Moog Music Youtube page. Her work with the iconic brand goes way back, from composing patchbooks for their semi-modular “Ecosystem” as well as the deeply exploratory multi-timbral patches on the Moog One 16 Voice Polyphonic synthesizer.

Being an ambassador for the brand ain’t no small thing, Lisa has 2 full-length releases only available on the Moog Music Bandcamp that feature the Moog One Synthesizer. “Transformers” & “Explorations With The Moog One Electronic Music Synthesizer Vol. 2” which give incredible examples of the Moog One’s infinite musical possibilities.

Lisa’s 2XLP album “Afternoon Dreams” was the very first album released that features compositions performed solely on the Moog Matriarch.  

lisa bella donna

Lisa’s musical knowledge is next level, considering she never formally studied, there is nothing she doesn’t know about classical music, and every other genre under the sun. As a youth, she ensconced herself at the local library, where she pored through books and taught herself how to read scores and learn the history of music. Studying the craft of the pipe organ in particular led her to her love of playing the Fender Rhodes.

“As soon as I sat down and played a Fender Rhodes, it put me to work,” she said. “When I bought my first one, I just put [it] in my car, and would go play rock, jazz, blues, contemporary, country music, anything that I could make a living doing.”

The early days of spending five nights on the road as a jazz musician gave her an invaluable education that taught her how to intuitively make decisions, by listening to what the moment requires musically.

Some of the tools that she is known to use include:

  • Modular synthesizers: often incorporating live patches and real-time manipulation of sound in her performances. She is known to use a variety of modular synthesizer systems, such as Eurorack and Buchla.
  • Analog synthesizers: classic models like the Moog and Roland synthesizers.
  • Drum machines: some of the drum machines that she is known to use include the Roland TR-808 and TR-909.
  • Samplers: both hardware and software, to create her own samples and manipulate them in her productions.
  • Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs): to compose, record, and produce her music, such as Ableton Live and Logic Pro.
  • Audio effects: including reverb, delay, and distortion. She is also known to use granular synthesis techniques to create unique soundscapes and textures.
  • Field recordings: recording sounds from nature or from her surroundings, and then manipulating them in her productions.
  • She also is known for her use of modular sequencers and MIDI controllers.

Bella Donna’s music is characterized by its experimental approach, combining elements of electronic, psychedelic and experimental music, and it often features intricate sound design, live improvisation and complex rhythms. She is also known for her live performances, where she uses her tools to create an immersive and dynamic experience for the audience.

Lisa currently spends her time teaching and consulting, and if you want to see more of her studio (trust me it will blow your mind) Earthquake Devices has just put out an incredibly in-depth interview.

Imogen Heap

Imogen Heap is a British singer-songwriter and electronic music producer who has been active in the music industry since the late 1990s. She is best known for her work as a solo artist, as well as her collaborations with other musicians and producers.

Heap first gained attention as a member of the duo Frou Frou, which released one album, “Details” in 2002. After the group disbanded, she began releasing music as a solo artist, starting with the album “iMegaphone” in 1998. Since then, she has released several more albums, including “Speak for Yourself” (2005), “Ellipse” (2009) and “Sparks” (2014).

imogen heap

Heap is known for her unique and experimental approach to music, incorporating cutting-edge technology and unconventional sounds and textures into her productions. She has been praised for her innovative use of live instruments and vocals, and for her ability to create emotional and atmospheric music.

She is also a pioneer in the use of interactive technology in live performances, using technology – such as gloves with sensors – which allows her to control her music and effects by gesturing with her hands.

In addition to her work as a solo artist, Heap has also collaborated with a number of other musicians and producers, including Jeff Beck, Deadmau5, and Guy Sigsworth. She has also contributed to film and television soundtracks, including the score for Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

Heap is also known for her work as a music technology advocate, she founded the platform Mycelia, a collective of musicians, engineers, and designers working together to create new standards for the music industry. Additionally, she is a strong advocate for open-source software and is a regular speaker at music technology conferences and events.

Some of the tools she has used throughout her career include:

  • Modular synthesizers: Eurorack and Buchla systems, often incorporating live patches and real-time manipulation of sound in her performances.
  • Samplers: Software samplers Ableton Sampler and Kontakt.
  • Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs): Heap uses a variety of DAWs to compose, record, and produce her music, such as Ableton Live and Logic Pro.
  • Interactive technology: Heap is a pioneer in the use of interactive technology in live performances, using gloves with sensors that allow her to control her music and effects by gesturing with her hands. She also developed her own software called Mi.Mu gloves, which are now available for other musicians to use.
  • Audio effects: Heap uses reverb, delay, and distortion, and she is also known to use granular synthesis techniques to create unique soundscapes and textures.
  • Field recordings: Heap also employs field recordings in her music compositions.

 

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith

American composer, artist, and producer, Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, like a lot of her contemporaries, found early inspiration with the piano, which led her to study classical guitar as a teenager, and then from there going on to study sound engineering, orchestration, and composition at Berklee College of Music in Boston.

On a visit home, she mentioned to a neighbour that she was a huge Terry Riley fan. (Riley is a pioneer of the minimalist school of composition)By chance, the neighbour owned a ’60s-built Buchla 100, which was loaned to Smith for a year, and hence, her education with the Buchla began.

kaitlyn smith

Smith has a pretty sweet studio setup at home, and given most Modular synths are comparable with an old-school telecommunication board, it’s not surprising many artists opt to settle. (If you have seen Lisa Bella Donna’s considerable set up you get a fair idea of why)

For her most recent album Let’s Turn It Into Sound, Kaitlyn spent a few months honing an entirely new sound to accompany her usual toolkit of modular, analog, and rare synthesizers (including her signature Buchla), orchestral sounds, and voice. 

Her work prominently employs Buchla modular synthesizers, of which she is open to some serious experimentation. 

Smith’s music makes prominent use of Buchla synthesizers, specifically the Buchla 100 and Musical Easel. She has stated that “there’s a lot of room for happy accidents with a Buchla synthesizer because it’s not very predictable. If you turn on a light in the room that you’re working in or if the grounding isn’t properly grounded or if you plug in something else, all of a sudden something will change. That gives me this feeling of working with a life, and that there is a biofeedback, more so than a predictable synthesizer.

I try and blend in as many different tones / timbres as possible. I like to imagine what that sound would feel like if I were to touch it and vice versa.”

Some of the tools that she is known to use include:

  • Modular synthesizers: Eurorack and Buchla Music Easel. She often incorporates live patches and real-time manipulation of sound in her performances.
  • Analog synthesizers: a variety, including classic models like the Moog and Roland synthesizers.
  • Samplers: both hardware and software, to create her own samples and manipulate them in her productions.
  • Digital Audio workstations (DAWs): Ableton Live and Logic Pro.
  • Audio effects: granular synthesis techniques to create unique soundscapes and textures.
  • Field recordings:  field recordings.

Smith received acclaim for her albums Ears (2016) and The Kid (2017). She has collaborated with Suzanne Ciani and Emile Mosseri. Kaitlyn has recently mixed Danny Elfmans ‘In time’ which you can check out below.

Kaitlyn is slated to debut her new album this month at The Melbourne Recital Centre when they kick off Season One: Horizon.