Sweet on Synthesizers : UCI’s Clark Spangler wants to keep music beautiful

Two things become obvious early in a conversation with Clark Spangler, longtime synthesist and coordinator of the newly revamped electronic music program offered through UC Irvine Extension: He’s passionate, and a touch protective, about synthesizers, and he has little patience for those who don’t take the time to learn how to use them properly.

When Spangler had a chance to meet Pete Townshend of The Who a few years back at a music industry shindig, the talk turned, naturally, to synthesizers. Townshend helped introduce the instrument to rock fans with his electronic doodles on 1971’s landmark “Who’s Next” album.

Spangler, affecting a mock British accent during a recent interview, recalled Townshend’s opinion of synthesizers: “You have to muck about a good long time before you get lucky and accidentally find something you can use.”

A look of horror crossed Spangler’s face. “Oh, what a terrible, terrible thing to say,” he said.


Although it’s easy enough, especially with today’s instruments, to push the buttons on a synthesizer and make a lot of interesting noises come out, Spangler doesn’t believe in leaving anything to chance.

“I’m often asked, ‘Why should I learn how to program? There are people who do this for a living.’ Well, that’s fine. One of the things that’s available on the modem is 4,000 sounds for the Yamaha DX-7 (a popular synthesizer). That’s a lot of sounds.

“Well, in the first place, I don’t want to listen to 4,000 sounds. They’re all going to start sounding alike in about half an hour. In the second place, why should I? If I would like to make a certain sound, I’ll make it.”

Spangler was a teacher in the film scoring program at UCLA when he was invited to perform in April of 1987 at the opening recital of UCI’s Gassman Electronic Studio. Soon after, he moved from his home in Silver Lake to Long Beach.


“I kept thinking about what a beautiful campus (UCI) is,” he recalls, “and about what an opportunity it was, because they had the lab and the money and attitude.” Spangler picked up the phone and called the university, and before long he had a job.

“So I put together a brand new certificate program, totally different from what they had before,” Spangler said. Against the advice of the university, he started the program in the summer with an introductory class. One session was planned--and it had to be expanded to three.

“The bottom line is, last quarter before I was here they had six (students). I had 51,” Spangler said. “It was really neat to discover that I was right, that there is a huge need for this program.” The program’s second quarter opened this week with new offerings of the introductory course along with a class in FM digital programming.

The purpose of the class, Spangler said, is to give students--whether they be professional musicians, teachers or hobbyists--a place to catch up on fast-moving synthesizer technology, and to learn the basics of electronic music.

“I have yet to say that to achieve any particular result you twist this knob or push that slider halfway up. It’s totally irrelevant,” Spangler said. “What is absolutely relevant is what (synthesizers) do, what the components are.

“We focus very strongly on basics. Then when the new model comes out, and it surely will come out next Tuesday--every Tuesday there’s a new model--the person who buys one or looks at one or is considering one can look at it and have a glimmering of what they’re seeing, because they understand what the components are.”

Spangler’s classes offer university credit, and students receive a certificate after completing a specified series of required courses and electives. “I don’t want these things just given away because somebody took half a dozen courses. I think you should work for it, you should know a lot,” Spangler said. “I would like it to imply competence, and that’s about all you can hope for.”

UCI’s program is an example of the increasing acceptance of electronic music as an area of study in colleges and universities. USC recently added an electronic music major, and synthesizers are now part of the curriculum at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, one of the most respected jazz schools in the country.


Academic acceptance “has taken a long time because there are so many traditionalists,” Spangler said. Citing USC and Berklee as examples, he said the tide is turning. “If you read their course descriptions, there’s no question that they believe, as we believe, that this is music today. So more and more schools, yes, are aware of it.”

Before schools got into the act, electronic musicians were largely self-taught. Spangler, trained as a church organist, bought a first-generation ARP synthesizer 20 years ago and set out to learn all its capabilities. “I was told by ARP that I knew more about that instrument than anyone in the world. Well, for one thing, I wanted to, and for another I couldn’t afford not to.”

He started doing work for television programs, including “Star Trek,” “Mannix,” “Mission: Impossible” and “Here’s Lucy.” “The main title for (“Night Gallery”) had this absolutely hideous woman screaming,” Spangler recalled. “Well, that wasn’t a woman screaming--that was me. I had synthesized the sound.”

He has also worked on films, including “All the President’s Men” (he created the Teletype sounds that open the movie) and “Witness.” And he has worked on a number of pop albums with an eclectic array of stars including Barbra Streisand, Stevie Wonder, Neil Diamond, Barry White and “lots of jazz people.”

In his 20 years in electronic music, Spangler has watched the technology explode, and has seen electronics pervade all aspects of the music business, from film and television scoring to pop music to commercial jingles.

“Most young people, I think very sadly and very unfortunately, have no idea what a real string section sounds like,” Spangler said. “They listen to the radio, they listen to records and MTV, and what’s in there most of the time is electronic instruments that are remarkably similar to acoustic sounds.”

In a perfect world, synthesizers would complement traditional instruments, Spangler said. But that’s not the case. “One of the nice uses, or proper uses if you will, of a synthesizer is creating wonderful musical sounds that you have not heard. And some will be of the school, will always be of the school, that the worst possible use of the synthesizer is to sound like a violin, or a trumpet, or a cello or anything else at all that already exists.

“Realistically, that’s what 90% of the use of synthesizers is.”


The advent of sampling, which is based on digital recordings of acoustic sounds, has greatly enhanced the ability to emulate traditional instruments. “I have to admit it. I think I can fool anybody today into thinking they’re hearing an orchestra,” Spangler said. “I think it’s an awful idea, but I can do it with the stuff sitting in my studio at home.”

There are instances when Spangler has no qualms about imitating the sound of an existing instrument. “It’s a wonderful use of the synthesizer to do things that are so rare that you can’t find a player or an instrument, or the player and the instrument are so unwieldy and inconvenient that you can’t have one.

“Harpsichords are wonderful, but an enormous aggravation. They’re always out of tune. . . . Pipe organs are considerably inconvenient to haul around. You can make a colossal pipe organ with electronics.”

Because of the sophisticated technology involved in electronic music, Spangler often has to fight a perception that the instruments practically play themselves. “Just because the ability of the machine exists doesn’t mean that it happens automatically,” he said. “You have to practice, just like you always did.”

And Spangler was clearly unhappy with a question that contrasted synthesists with “real” musicians.

“Oh, now, watch out for that ‘real’ musician thing, because I belong to the same union as the guy that plays violin,” he snapped. “You have to, if anything, know more to play the synthesizer than some of the ‘real’ instruments, because a synthesizer is just as real as anything else. . . . You’re still responsible for tone, you’re responsible for rhythm, for phrasing--all the things that are part of music are part of synthesis, as well as getting the thing to do what you want it to do.”

Traditional musicians, Spangler said, are turning increasingly to synthesizers. “There are a lot of people who you would think would certainly never dirty their hands with any kind of electronics. Well, they’re not only dirtying their hands, but smiling and saying, ‘Hey, this is really fun.’ ”

Fun or not, though, it’s largely a matter of survival. “I think it’s very sad, because there’s nothing wrong with the violin, or the viola, or the cello or any other orchestral instrument. But if you have to battle with the old American reality of making a living, it’s probably a bad bet. . . . Because, at this point, it’s going to have to be electronic.

“The professional who doesn’t know anything about synthesizers might as well just back out. If I had a kid who said he wanted to play the oboe, I’d be worried. It’s an obsolete instrument--wonderful, but obsolete.”