Family Matters: The Resonance of the Resynator

Dean Budnick on March 13, 2019
Family Matters: The Resonance of the Resynator

Alison Tavel was just 10 weeks old when her father Don died in a 1988 car crash. While growing up she heard stories of how he had created a synthesizer but she knew little about this endeavor. She would go on to work in the music field like her father, taking on the role of assistant to Grace Potter at age 23. Over the ensuing years, she would occasionally share stories of her dad’s venture, without entirely understanding the specifics. Prompted one day by a conversation with Phish bassist Mike Gordon, she made a trip to her grandmother’s attic, where she discovered the Resynator. Tavel is now directing a film that tracks her road to discovery with both the instrument and her father.

As she explains on the Kickstarter page she has created to solicit backers for this project, after she found the Resynator, “I took it back to LA with me to work with the man who had originally engineered it for my dad in the ‘70s. It took a while to get it up and running again because we had no other units to go off of, I had the only one left. My goal was to figure out what it actually was and honestly, if it was cool or not. I was only filming to document the resurrection of the synth, I had no idea that over the course of that year my entire life would change because of it.”

Tavel has funded the effort herself until now but has initiated the Kickstarter campaign to assist with completing the film. Among the people who already have appeared on camera are Potter, Gordon, Fred Armisen and Peter Gabriel (who originally put in an order for three Resynators in the mid-80s). Pledge awards include Resynator merch, a playable wall poster, a 7” single of Resynator music created by Potter, studio sessions with the synth, a Resynator workshop with Potter and much more.

This is not only a compelling account of a vanished instrument but it is personal narrative. As Tavel reveals, “I hate being on camera but I think the story’s worth it. Families are complicated. People are complicated. Artists often express their emotions through music because they don’t have another outlet and I think that was my dad. I think he was expressing himself through the Resynator and I see that very clearly now.”

Can you recall the specific moment that led you to your grandmother’s attic and resulted in your discovery of the Resynator?

You get to know somebody really quickly when you’re on tour with them—you sleep in a bunk across from them, you spend 24 hours a day with them. When I started touring with Grace, we became instant friends. She’s the easiest person to get along with, and she’s just the most incredible human being. So we would share stories and I don’t remember how it came up, but I explained that my dad passed away, that he was a musician too and that he invented a synthesizer. Then she asked the question, “What synth?”

I didn’t know how to answer that, and she became the first of many people to ask me that same question. When you’re on tour, you’re constantly interacting with musicians, with the crew and with the local people, and every once in a while, someone will talk about an interesting piece of gear or a vintage synth that they’re looking at on the local Craigslist. So it would always come up and I would be like, “Oh, my dad invented a synth,” and then I couldn’t follow that up with any knowledge. I didn’t know anything except that he invented a synth. I found out very early on he didn’t invent the synthesizer, which was a misconception I had as a kid. I had thought he invented the Synthesizer because that’s what I was told. You see, my family members aren’t musicians and when they were trying to explain it to a nine-year-old, they didn’t go into any detail because they didn’t really know.

Then when I was out on the road with Grace, people started asking these questions that I just couldn’t answer. It ended up coming to a head when I was in LA going to see Mike Gordon play. This was on St. Patrick’s Day at the El Rey Theatre in LA. At that point, he had an interactive Tom Hanks-style keyboard [from Big] that people in the front row could play. I was watching this and I just immediately thought of my dad. After the show I was talking to Mike, and I told him, “My dad did something like this.” I remember hearing a story, one of the many stories of him performing his thesis when he was getting his Master’s, using some synthesizer that he’d invented, and he manipulated the lights and the sounds of the auditorium with his thoughts running through the synthesizer. And again, Mike asked the age-old question, “What synthesizer?” After I said, “I don’t know,” I went home and I decided, “Maybe I should figure out what this is.”

So I found a gap when we had like a couple weeks off tour—I think around Father’s Day as it turned out—and I was like, “I’m gonna go to Indianapolis and I’m gonna get the synthesizer and I’m gonna figure out what it is.” So I went and I got it and then the reverse engineering kind-of-process happened with my dad’s original partner Mike Beigel, who happened to live two hours south of me in LA. So I was able to bring it to him and we would work on it sporadically. It took him about nine months to get it up-and-running and through that process I started to realize, “This is not a synth resurrection project. I wanna know more about my dad.”

At what point did you decide to chronicle all of this on film?

At first, I started filming on my iPhone just to document the resurrection of the synth. At the time I didn’t think this was gonna be a real documentary. I’m not a filmmaker. My thoughts were, “This is cool. I should film it.” We film everything these days. We have iPhones that are capable of doing it. So why not?

The main goal was just to document the resurrection in case it was cool. Then I continued filming. I had reached out to certain people along Grace’s tour who knew my dad, in order to figure out why production had been halted. I have the schematics, I have a prototype and he definitely had plans to make this an actual product that was out on the market. Somebody told me that he remembers ordering 200 units with my dad. So where are those units and what stopped production? Why was production stopped a few years before he died in 1988? I was confused by that and I’m still trying to figure out why production was halted. It’s been a mystery.

What would you say to someone who doesn’t know all that much about synths, regarding what’s so special about the work that your dad did on the Resynator?

I’ve been learning all about synths as I’ve been doing this, because I don’t have a background in it. So the way I understand it—and a synth enthusiast might tell me I’m wrong—is he invented a computer chip, a microprocessor that could track the pitch of anything, and that chip is really what made the Resynator so unique and ahead of its time back in 1974 through 1979 when he was developing it. He partnered with Mike Beigel to engineer it and to design it and be a part of the project. The problem was that I don’t think he could sell them for very cheap. I think he couldn’t compete with Roland and Korg and Sequential Circuits and all of the companies that were rolling out products.

Some musicians have told me, “If this was out, it should’ve done well.” But it was too expensive, and kind of confusing, honestly. It’s not the most intuitive thing and he invented a lot of words—I think a lot of builders were inventing words for their own units, but they all have user manuals. My dad’s was never out there, so nobody knows what his terms mean, like CM Synthesis and Timbral Image Modulator, he just came up with those. There were many different unique qualities that set the Resynator aside from other units, but in certain ways I think those unique qualities matched with the price at the time, are probably why it didn’t sell well.

Can you talk a little bit about your father and his background?

He was a musician from Indianapolis and I’ve been told that his was his lifelong dream. He was a really good guitarist and could play a bunch of different instruments but he also was interested in the emerging computer technology and the influence it could have on music and art.

He went to school at Indiana University and nowadays you go to college and there’s a make-your-own-major program but not really back then. However, he convinced the school to let him create a major that didn’t exist, which was Computer Music. He graduated in ’74. Then he received his Master’s in ’76 and he was allowed to perform his thesis. He didn’t have to write a paper, and the joke was that if he had to write the paper, he would’ve failed. So he performed his thesis instead, and blew away with his mind-lighting-manipulation show. I think that he was really ahead of his time in a lot of ways.

What’s been explained to me is he was really smart and really capable. However, given his limited resources, I think he did the best he could. The invention part of his life just didn’t work out. Then he became a music professor. He would teach classes like History of Rock and Roll in the MIDI Era. He died in ‘88 while he was teaching at Indiana University.

So is it your understanding that your dad actually invented some technology whereby thoughts could be manifested in light?

Again, that’s the story that’s been told to me. I’ve been trying to find somebody who went to that performance other than family members. I want somebody who was there and understood the technology to explain it to me. But as I understand it, he had electrodes or a guitar pickup, or something through which he was able to translate brainwaves into a signal, and then that signal was the thing that was manipulating.

I’m still trying to wrap my head around it. All I know is that it was a very innovative performance. I found a brochure of the evening when he performed the thesis, but I haven’t found any audio of it and I haven’t found any newspaper articles that were written about it, so I can’t confirm these things. That’s why this whole documentary has been such an investigative journey because I’m trying to go back and find all the stories that were told to me and figure out which ones were kind of misconstrued and which ones were real, because growing up I pictured him as some sort of superhero who was unattainable and unrelatable. It’s been this process of debunking, but also learning the truth of who he really was that has brought me closer to him. It’s why now I now feel so connected to him, because I can relate to him, finally.

The whole documentary is really a father-daughter narrative, it’s an investigative journey of me connecting with my dad in this very unconventional way. I also should point out that my mom is an artist. She’s a painter and a chef and can create literally anything, so I grew up in a really creative atmosphere. I never really felt sad that he wasn’t around because I grew up with such a loving mother who played both roles. She played mom and dad so well that I never felt like I was missing anything in my life and I still don’t. Even now, although I still don’t feel a void, I do feel a longing to learn about someone and connect with someone.

You show some footage of Fred Armisen using the Resynator. What’s his connection to all of this?

I remember reading an article that said he was a big fan of Kraftwerk and I said to myself, “I bet he’s a big synth guy.” One of the cool parts about this has been finding the non-traditional synth people. My friend Stewart is a trumpet player, he plays with Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros and he’s a brilliant trumpet player, but he knows everything about synths. Now if you were to have a synth documentary or like a compilation album of synthesists you would find people like Jean-Michel Jarre or Mark Mothersbaugh and those are people that I want attached to this project for sure. But the cool thing about the Resynator is it can sound like anything. It’s not a keyboard synth and it’s not modular Eurorack synth either. It’s instrument controlled pitch tracking, so if a drummer is a big synth nerd, this is the coolest thing for them.

So I wanted to find the kind of outside-of-the-box people to approach. That’s why Mike Gordon played so well into this because everybody knows Mike is a bass player. However, Mike also loves synths and he was such a good sport to come and give his time for this project. So I’ve been looking for people like that.

When I heard Fred liked Kraftwerk, I thought, “I bet he would be down to get weird with this thing.” One of my friends told me, “I can help you get to Fred and I think he would really like this story.” And then Fred was like, “Yeah, I’ll totally do it.” So that’s as easy as it was.

There are some other people I’ve been trying to get for years, but I just can’t break the barrier. Hopefully some of those people will end up reaching out to me one day.

Who are some of those people you’re hoping to get?

Trent Reznor would be an obvious choice for this. First of all his last name’s Reznor and this is a Resynator. So like that makes sense. I’ve been trying to get his eyes on this synth for four years.

Beck is another person I would love to enjoy this synth one day.

Then there are other more synth-y people like Jonny Greenwood from Radiohead. I remember reading a quote from him in which he was talking about how he loved instruments that took time to understand and perplexed him. I’m like, “Oh my god, how do I get in touch with Jonny? I have that instrument.”

Peter Gabriel actually ordered a few back in the day?

He did. I was in the attic going through boxes which had gear but also had a bunch of magazines and paperwork, and I pulled out this one piece of paper that had a unique looking logo on the letterhead with the name Syco Systems. I thought, “Well, that’s interesting,” and when I read the letter it said, “We’d like to confirm the purchase of three units” and it mentions that one of the people “grasping, cutting and stabbing for their first eager Resynator is Peter Gabriel” [the musician had co-founded Syco, a high-end synth distribution company with his cousin Stephen Paine]. I was like, “Oh my god!”

So I reached out to everyone I’ve ever met and said, “Hey, I think Peter Gabriel might remember this. Is there anybody who can put me in touch with him?” I ended up getting in touch through a friend and he confirmed that he remembered it. It took me a couple years, but I got the interview and I flew to meet with him. I brought him a new one to play around with. It jogged his memory and it was one of those things where he remembered demo-ing it, but he must’ve been demo-ing hundreds of things that were coming in and out of his studio all the time. So it’s great that he remembers it. I’m sure he had only a brief encounter with it, but it was still huge for me. I’m trying to track down other people with similar experiences from back then. Hopefully with the awareness this Kickstarter is creating, someone will reach out to me and say, “Oh, I have one.”

When do you anticipate that you’re going to complete the film?

Right now I think 2021 will be the year that it comes out. I think I have the rest of this year to finish filming and then do a lot of the editing and post-production in 2020. I started this in 2014, but it’s been me funding it and getting donations, so it’s been a long process. As I mentioned there are still some musicians I would like to get on board, so I’m probably 75% done with the filming.

I also want to build a song using only the Resynator and vocals. The idea is it would be an original song and I want it to be a tribute to my dad. I want to incorporate someone that my dad was a fan of, like one of the classic rock icons that he loved and have them be a part of this in some way. I don’t know who it is yet and I don’t know what role they’ll play, so that’s gonna be my biggest, most ambitious thing yet.

Your Kickstarter page also features a short film on the history of the Resynator. It sounds like the narration is by the voice of CVS Pharmacy. Is that accurate?

Yeah it is [Laughs]. Matt Musty, Grace’s current drummer lived in Nashville briefly and now we live together out in LA. When he was in Nashville or maybe he went to college, he knew this guy who happens to be a professional voice-over artist. He’s the Bank of America guy when you’re on hold and CVS and American Airlines. So I was making this animated video and I was going to have Matt do the voice-over, because it talks about Alison, this and Alison, that, so it couldn’t be me talking about it.

When I asked Matt if he would do it, he said, “I have one better, what if my friend Tom Glynn did it?” and I was like, “Oh my god, yes!” He agreed to it do it as a friendly thing and I love it so much.

I’m glad you noticed. I was so appreciative of his help. Of course, on the subject of people who have helped me, I also want to thank Grace. She’s opened up so many doors for me and this project wouldn’t happen without her. She was the first person to record with the resurrected Resynator. She recorded a David Bowie cover song and put it on YouTube and that’s in the teaser video, I licensed it for the Kickstarter campaign. It was such a cool thing because David Bowie had just died and she wanted to pay tribute to him, and the Resynator had just been resurrected—so it was a tribute to both David and to the Resynator, to my dad. She’s always so thoughtful and she’s been such a champion of this project since day one. Probably my favorite reward on the Kickstarter is that she’s agreed to do a Soundscape demo, where we’re going to record her vocals and guitar, and just do like this cool dreamscape, soundscape demo, and I’m going to put it on a 7”.

I’m just so proud of this project and I’m also really excited about the Resynator and I brought it around to enough people to where I know it’s something that interests musicians. So I’m comfortable approaching them and saying, “If you want to play the synth, play it. If not, just tell me no and I can move on to the next person. It’s totally fine.” So that’s been my jam. I keep reaching out, sharing and learning while I continue this journey.