Since 2009, Yuri Suzuki—a sound designer whose diverse interactive works include a musical robot train and a kid-friendly circuit board that turns everything into a musical instrument—has traveled the world, collecting the sounds of the countries he visits with a dictaphone.
And after seven years of collecting sounds, Suzuki asked himself what an instrument that could "play" them would look like. And to create this instrument, which he calls the Global Synthesizer, he teamed up with Moog.
From above, the Global Synthesizer looks like a cubist's rendition of Earth, rendered in walnut audio cabinets. These cabinets are actually separate Moog modules, each of which contains a library of sounds crowdsourced from the international Moog community, as well as some from Suzuki's personal library. One module might contain sounds from Europe, and another, sounds from the South Pacific ocean. The audio files span everything from Ukrainian church bells to the keen of a Portuguese dog barking, or traditional Indian folk music that sounds remarkably like Samba. There are even modules for different acoustic spaces, so the Global Synthesizer can make a parrot squawking in Brazil sound as if it is doing so in the atrium of the Taj Mahal.
Most of us are familiar with modern electric synthesizers, which look like digital pianos. But the Global Synthesizer is modular, an old-school type of synthesizer that works by direct wiring. Suzuki describes it to me as working sort of like an early 20th-century operator's board: by plugging one module into others, you can create different sounds and effects.
Suzuki says this seemingly primitive form of synthesizer is coming back into vogue because it's flexible. If you have the know-how, you can directly program it to make any sort of music you want to make. (MIT's got an amazing one you can actually control from your browser if you want to try it for yourself.)
The Global Synthesizer debuted at Moogfest 2016 earlier in May. Suzuki says he wants to continue to build out the project, collecting more sounds. Eventually, he hopes the project might encompass every sound on the planet.
It's a nice little metaphor for the globalization of the musical world: the Global Synthesizer represents in microcosm the cross-pollination of sounds and influences that define world music as a whole. Cables string between cabinets representing different countries a continent away from one another, forming circuits and loops which can only be heard in the beat of the whole.