A conversation with BSEM founder and ARP 2600 manual author Jim Michmerhuizen
If you were to set the Wayback Machine to 1968 while searching for transformational albums, Wendy Carlos’ Switched-On Bach would likely be among the top of the list. It brought the synthesizer to mainstream consciousness, as well as turning musicians on to a wonderful new technology. If you fast-forwarded to 1972, the synthesizer world would still be in its infancy with only a handful of commercial manufacturers like EMS, Moog, ARP, EML and Buchla. Information on how to use and program synthesizers was virtually nonexistent.
While some large universities offered courses in electronic music, in 1972 Jim Michmerhuizen founded what would become the first school solely teaching synthesis: the Boston School of Electronic Music. Led by Jim, BSEM existed for seven years from 1972 until 1979, when a fire destroyed most of the gear and brought an end to the school.
I was lucky enough to have attended BSEM in the summer of 1976 and studied under Jim. It was, of course, an amazing experience. I recently reconnected with him to do an interview via email to get some insights into BSEM, its history, and its philosophy.
How and when did you become involved with synthesizers in the first place? What’s your background?
That was in 1968, when I heard Switched-On Bach for the first time. The opening track was J.S. Bach that I knew well, the beginning of cantata #29, but it had never sounded like that. And I’d been following Xenakis, Varese, Stockhausen, and such people, but their musique concrète and synthesis had not sounded like that either. I was instantly and totally hooked on the kind of audio synthesis I was hearing from Wendy Carlos.
What was your first synthesizer and where did you get it?
It was a Synthi AKS. I was working at a high-end stereo store in New Haven Connecticut. A representative from EMSA, up in Amherst, called on us—sometime after that Carlos/Bach/Moog revelation—to demonstrate the Synthi. I persuaded our manager to take one on consignment, and then, of course, had to take it home to learn it because how else could we sell any?
When and where did you first start teaching about synthesis?
Would you believe the first time I stood up in front of anybody to teach synthesis happened in Caracas, Venezuela in 1972?
Who came up with the idea and concept of BSEM?
There was no “concept of BSEM” at the beginning. It germinated over a period of a year or so, after that Venezuela presentation.
Were there other collaborators at the onset of BSEM?
The most significant of those was Peter Fink, whose relationship with Intermedia Sound studio in Cambridge had led to the Venezuela seminar. Knowing that I had written the ARP 2600 Owner’s Manual, he invited me to join him in delivering it as a seminar at the Centro Simon Bolivar in Caracas.
A couple of months after we got back, early in 1972, he suggested we might see whether there’d be any takers for such a seminar in Boston. There were; we offered a one-month course in the basement of Intermedia Studio on Newbury Street, and we repeated that course several months in a row.
Where was BSEM first located, and who developed the curriculum?
Peter found us a ground-floor studio apartment on Beacon Street. We began to promote an expanded version of our course. I was responsible for the course outline and content, he did the marketing and promotion, and we shared the actual teaching activity. But I suppose I should add that from the first, the structure and content of the teaching and training were entirely my responsibility. I never took any advice from anyone, then or ever.
How was BSEM funded and what was the initial gear collection like?
It was funded only by receipts and by the enthusiasm of everybody who had anything to do with it. We began with my 2600, Pete’s 2500, and a few other pieces of equipment that drifted in as their owners joined us.
How many students initially attended and what was an average class size?
Unfortunately, I have no records and not much memory. I’d estimate—reasoning from the overall context—that in the Intermedia basement we’d have maybe four people at a time enrolled. At Dartmouth Street we got as many as twelve for a ten-week semester. I don’t think we ever exceeded that.
How did BSEM acquire its extensive gear? Did you buy it or get loans from manufacturers?
We bought as little of it as we could. A lot of it came in with its owner, who would become a staff member just to stick around and play. I got a deal with the Boston Sony distributor and the bank, so we could sell Sony equipment; but of course, my main purpose was to use “demonstrators” in the studio.
BSEM was in many respects more like a West-Coast commune than a business. Although we incorporated in 1975, as a stock for-profit corporation, all of our stockholders were former students, and their “investment” consisted of the synths they owned at the time. When we closed our doors in 1979, I took over the debts and paid them off over the years out of my income from software activities.
The ARP 2600 seemed to be a key teaching tool when I was there. Did you have a special relationship with ARP at the time?
Nominally, yes. BSEM was an authorized ARP dealer to educational institutions. In addition to my personal machine, though, we had John Quinn’s 2600, Mark Styles’ Moog V, and some Synthi equipment courtesy of EMSA, the Electronic Music Studios of Amherst.
How did you get involved with ARP and writing the 2600 owner’s manual?
While I was absorbed in learning the fundamentals of audio synthesis with that Synthi AKS I mentioned, I stumbled into some promotional literature from Tonus about the 2500.
I contacted Tonus; they invited me up to visit the factory, and I met Alan R. Pearlman. A week or so later I wrote him that his company was going to need a really good owner’s manual for the 2600 they were in the process of developing. I told him I could write it, and he hired me to do it. I moved up to Boston, with my wife and my two-year-old daughter, in December of 1970.
Are you aware that the 2600 manual is still considered one of the best tutorials on analog synthesis to this day?
Yeah. I’ve been selling reprints of it via my website and on Analogue Heaven ever since ARP ended. Twenty years ago, I thought about creating a sort of “revised and enlarged” version, covering modular synthesis in general. I planned such a work and drafted some representative text, maybe a couple of dozen pages and diagrams. Got distracted.
Getting back to BSEM, what did you consider the most important synth or device for teaching synthesis?
That was our Hewlett-Packard oscilloscope. It was a big, expensive, four-trace storage scope and a real beast that cost us a lot. I had soldered together a cheap Heathkit scope back when I was learning the Synthi AKS (that was also my introduction to soldering irons). Being able to show dynamically what was occurring with waveforms and control signals in the synthesizer was key to students “getting it.”
What was the strangest instrument or piece of gear at BSEM?
There were several candidates: the EMS 256-step Digital Sequencer synthesizer and the RMI Harmonic Synthesizer, which came from Clark Ferguson, come to mind. One trust-fund rocker wanted a two-manual, 8-voice Oberheim, and we contracted to have Oberheim build it for him. I don’t know what became of it.
I don’t recall any Buchla synths; it was mostly “East Coast” devices. Did you know Don Buchla?
That’s true. I never laid a hand on a Buchla system, and to this day I haven’t. No deep principles involved—it’s just the way the cookie crumbles.
Did BSEM have any affiliation or collaboration with other colleges or universities in Boston? I know I received credit for my summer semester.
We didn’t pursue any formal accreditation, ever. I was on good terms with department heads at Berklee and at UMass Boston. We did have a clearly defined course schedule, so other schools, as you mention, would often give course credits.
Where did most of your students come from, and where did the most far off student come from?
We didn’t really keep track and I don’t think there had been any decided predominance geographically, we had students from all over. In terms of other countries, we had Tzvi Avni from Israel and a guy from South Africa. Remarkably, each of those two had come the U.S. specifically to study with BSEM.
Did students often stay on and become teachers at BSEM?
Oh yes. John Duesenberry, Bob Snowdale (who went on to found Aries Synthesis), John Quinn, Mark Styles, Dave “Snuffy” Smith, Ron Rivera, Jim Richards, Ken Perrin, Skip Collins, Eric Schnell, and at least a couple of others. People tended to come and stick around.
I know Roger Powell was at BSEM at one point. Did any other notable synthesists attend?
Chick Corea visited once for a couple of hours. Once, while we were still in the basement at Intermedia, Stevie Wonder visited and tried out one of the 2600s for a bit.
I recall BSEM had a fire, was this at the Dartmouth Street location?
No. Dartmouth Street was the original location where we had operated for seven years, and in the fall of 1977 we had moved into a large house—mansion, some called it—on Kilsyth Road in Brookline. We held a big, celebratory open house for press, incoming students, and colleagues from local conservatories and music schools.
We only got to conduct one semester’s operations there; around 3 am on the morning of February 4, 1978, I got a call from John Quinn that a fire had destroyed the house. Three of our staff, living on the third floor, had escaped with their lives. But about half of the equipment was gone.
Did BSEM continue after the fire?
We continued in operation for another year and a half, roughly. Ken Perrin was instrumental in finding us a temporary house to rent, in Allston. But it was barely adequate, and not at all good to look at. We limped along and finally disbanded the corporation in the late summer of 1979 and closed the doors. We played the Bach trio sonatas one last time, for a Cambridge street festival, did a couple of free-form improvisations—ala Stockhausen, sans keyboard—and it was all over.
Our financial situation made it impossible to continue. We had a decent enrollment for the fall of 1979, but not enough revenue to begin paying each other what we needed to survive. I had also begun working my first job in software engineering in the fall of 1978, at IMLAC in Newton Highlands.
Nobody at BSEM had gotten rich, and many had stayed poor during its lifetime, out of their dedication to the cause.
Looking back, do you recognize how way ahead BSEM was? Was there anything comparable except maybe Mills College and the SF Tape Music Center?
Yes. I knew that our perspective had no equivalent within academia. I was proud of that. That vision was my central contribution to the school’s existence. The most direct statement of that vision was in the 1977 BSEM catalog:
“Where we—the Boston School of Electronic Music—are now, twenty years ago there was only wilderness. You might think of us as the little trading post on the frontier; beyond us there is still the wilderness, yours for the taking. We don’t give guided tours from a nice safe bus—we give survival training. It is rigorous, thorough, and disciplined. But compared to what lies ahead, even our training doesn’t amount to much more than a compass, a map, and a slap on the back.”
What did you do professionally after BSEM?
I made a decent living as a software engineering manager for the next 20 years. It was a relief. Having enough money to do things was great.
Later, you were involved in WayOut Ware, one of the early synth plug-ins and emulations of the ARP 2600.
Jim Heintz contacted me in March of 2004 and invited me to adapt the original manual for his product, the TimeWarp 2600. It was not difficult to adapt the descriptions of individual functions.
We demonstrated the precision of his implementation, when we announced it at NAMM in, I think, 2005, by setting up a real ARP 2600 and his emulation side by side and challenging anyone to set up any patch they pleased on the hardware, which we would then duplicate on the TimeWarp2600. He told me several years later that my intimate familiarity with the behavior of the 2600 had forced numerous improvements in detail of his digital signal generation and processing in the TimeWarp 2600.
Were you involved at all with the Korg reissue of the 2600 or have any thoughts on current software-based synthesizers?
I was aware of it from a distance, but have had no exchanges about it with Korg. Most of the 200 pieces in my “BachWorks” project from the early ‘90s were done with a Korg Wavestation. I loved it and wound up with—besides the keyboard model—two rack versions, as well. Then I got a Kurzweil 2500 Rack. That was disappointing. VCVrack is my current candidate for more experimentation.
I’ve been distantly aware of the industry over the past 40 years; but I was only active in personal projects such as the Bach stuff—nothing commercially interesting. I am interested to see how the field is developing in newer hardware products, controllers, and software emulations. There are good products, and practices, and protocols to explore. But there’s a lot that still needs to happen, I think.