Synthesis, Sound Design, and The Semi-Modulars

Authors: Dan Butler, Residential Instructor, Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired (TSBVI)

Keywords: music, synthesis, sound design, tactile instruments, synthesizer

Abstract: The author describes a program he created at the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired to teach students about music, sound design, and synthesis. The group of students in this class formed a band called The Semi-Modulars. The Semi-Modulars play in the community and have created and released five albums of original music through the years.

The Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired’s residential department encourages employees to create unique residential classes during the evening hours.  In 2013, I proposed a residential class that would teach students about the basics of synthesis and sound design. I have been writing and producing music for decades, and thought a course that would afford students the opportunity to explore analog synthesizers (which tend to be mostly tactile instruments) would be fun. The class was approved, and I was granted a small budget that I used to purchase two pieces of equipment. One was a teaching tool, an analog synthesizer kit that had just been released by a company called Littlebits. In conjunction with Korg, a website for keyboards and synthesizers, they had created an educational kit that contained all of the standard components of a synthesizer, but the components could be rearranged in a variety of ways allowing for unique explorations in sound and signal flow. The other piece of equipment was a recreation of a Korg MS-20, a semi-modular analog mono synthesizer first introduced in the late 1970s.  

An adult sits with two students at a table with tactile synthesizers and sound boards.

Residential Instructor Dan Butler teaches two students in the Synthesis and Sound Design evening class to use tactile synthesizers to help them learn about music.

The students in the class spent a lot of time toying with these instruments, learning the basic vocabulary and functionality of different synth components (i.e. oscillators, low pass filters, envelope generators, etc). The class was not specifically music focused, though some of the students were musically inclined and tended to play bass lines and melodies on the instruments when given an opportunity to do so.

The following year, I requested more money so that additional gear could be acquired in the hopes of allowing more students to participate in the class. Though I did not receive as much as I had requested, I scoured used resources and was able to stretch the budget we were granted to its limits. We added to the classroom several small synth modules, as well as a digital sampler. Having these new pieces of equipment allowed the students to create full musical compositions utilizing all electronic musical instruments. We recorded a few of these compositions, and students were provided copies to share with their families and friends.

As the years went on, I continued to build the classroom into a full-blown recording studio (albeit a modest one). The focus continued to be on acquiring equipment that could be operated by low vision or blind students. In 2017, we finally had enough equipment to facilitate having up to seven students playing on a different piece of gear at the same time. This is when the idea of having the students form a band was born.  Several of the students in this class were extremely gifted musicians. As such, they quickly began working on composing original music. Throughout the 2017-2018 school year, the students accumulated over ten original compositions! We collectively decided to release this material both physically, via CD, and online through Bandcamp, an online audio distribution platform.

Naturally, the next step would be to play a live show to promote their new album. I reached out to some contacts I had in the community and booked the students their first live set at a local coffee shop. The students were tasked with promoting the show by reaching out to local media, as well as spreading the word to staff and other students at the school. The response from the community was tremendous! The students not only sold all of the CDs that they had brought to the show, but they also made some additional money in tips. The students divided all of the money equally among themselves and went home at the end of the school year with a pretty nice payout for their hard work.

Six adolescents and one adult sit at a table on an outside stage playing synthesizers and sound boards with the words "Cherrywood Coffee House" on the wall behind them.

Residential Instructor Dan Butler guides The Semi-Modulars during their performance at Cherrywood Coffee House in the spring of 2022.

Five adolescents and one adult sit at a table playing synthesizers and sound boards inside a crowded eating venue.

Residential Instructor Dan Butler guides The Semi-Modulars during their performance at Billy’s on Burnet in the spring of 2023.

We now follow this formula each school year. The students learn the gear, write and record songs, release an album, then play live shows in the community to promote the album. In 2019, the group performed as part of that year’s South by Southwest music festival, and in the spring of 2023, they were invited to play as part of the annual Fusebox Festival in Austin. Their performance at the Fusebox Festival left such an impression on the organizers that they have already been invited to return in 2024.  They will begin work on their sixth full-length album beginning in September 2023.

Check out all The Semi-Modulars’ albums on Bandcamp where you can stream and download their music. 

Listen to Dan Butler talk about The Semi-Modulars and the history of the Synthesis and Sound Design class at TSBVI on A Sense of Texas Podcast from 9/1/2020.

Video of The Semi-Modulars playing at the Fusebox Festival in Austin in 2023

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