Technician, musician, and recordist Stephen Masucci has been a friend of Tape Op for many years, helping set up interviews and turning us on to some great people. His band, The Lost Patrol, has been a favorite listen around the office as well. But his real skill is rebuilding synthesizers, consoles, and all kinds of gear. And working for Gotye/Wally De Backer [see his interview this issue], Stephen has restored over six Ondioline keyboards; a rare French proto-synthesizer.
How did you end up in the music instrument, console, and keyboard restoration world?
I was always a big fan of people like Wendy Carlos, Isao Tomita, and such. As we headed into the '80s a lot of that synthesizer gear was being thrown away. People were buying [Yamaha] DX7s, and you could get a Minimoog for $200 in pretty much mint condition. I had some instruments I'd come across, but I couldn't afford to get anybody to fix it. I did meet Walter Sear [Tape Op #41] very early on, who became a mentor in electronics for me. A college I was doing some work for had a Moog synthesizer, and they were like, "Would you like to try to fix this?" I said, "A Moog synthesizer!" Other people had this type of gear, and then they started getting my phone number. I like doing restoration where people say it can't be done. Of course it can be done; we went to the moon! It's just time and doing the research.
You restored some Helios consoles as well.
I did a couple of Helios. I've done lots of custom work and builds.
How did you and Wally meet at the beginning of this whole Ondioline restoration?
He'd been enamored with Jean-Jacques Perrey's music for years, and he found this instrument was at the core of it. He quickly discovered how rare they were and that none of them really worked. He finally found one in Connecticut, of all places, that had actually been in a flooded basement. You can actually see the waterline on it. He got my number through Brian Kehew [Tape Op #93] or [musician] Rob Schwimmer. He brought it over, and I felt, "Well, I can"t make it worse. Let's have a go." It was already so bad. I kind of did a half-truth and said, "Yeah, I have fixed worse than this." And I have fixed some pretty bad things. I had to learn about the materials. The only reason I'm able to do this is because I have an amazing machinist friend who has a CNC [computer numerical control] machine shop. Another friend of mine is an expert in 1920s and 1930s tube technology. Then one other friend is an expert in 18th and 19th century fine wood restoration for museums. I didn't do this all on my own.
Wally hinted that you were at a point too where you were a little bored with some of the same restoration work you've had over the years.
Not bored, but it was starting to become same-y. I love doing it, and I love putting something back in the hands of a musician. The payoff is not that I restored the unit, but rather can the musician make music with it? Does the console let them forget about the console and make music? It's great to preserve the artifact and make it a functional, playable, tunable musical instrument that's reliable. But the real payoff for me is when a musician or producer gets to do their work and they're excited about it.
The Ondioline is very expressive and has its own unique voice. Bringing those back to life is a way to bring back music that would never be heard otherwise.
Absolutely. If Wally didn't do this, this would be lost. A lot of the music that he's doing with this Ondioline orchestra has never been played live. It was all studio recordings for a film or TV show. It's a really unique situation for me. We were very careful to make sure the restorations were complete and remained as authentic as possible. There's essentially no modern work-arounds on any part of them. I didn't cheat anywhere. There's no component that wasn't a part of the original machine. There's nothing in there that isn't really what would have been shipped from the factory.
What kind of methodology do you take with a job like that?
The whole device comes apart completely. I take lots of photographs and notes. If you look at the circuitry, the inventor, Georges Jenny, was certainly thinking outside of the box on this thing. It makes sense as a whole system; but when you break it down, it's very inventive and clever what he did. It has multiple axes of expression, and it's all simultaneous. It's a very electromechanical device.
What were some of the hardest parts of restoration?
A lot of the plastics that he used deteriorated or shrank and crumbled from age. I've done six or seven full restorations, not all the same model. It'd be depending on what materials he used and how far they'd degrade. We'd make new parts that were the exact same part, just with a current material, with plexiglass or an acrylic of some kind. All the shielded wire has to be replaced; because in the wire they used, the insulation breaks down so it's shorting out signals. Tube sockets had to be replaced. Everything basically is original, except the electronic parts that you need to make it work. Wally's an incredibly smart guy. He's really aware of what he"s asking for and that it's a bit of, "We'll have to learn as we go." Especially the first one. That was kind of cool, because it was almost a worst-case scenario. We were really in deep on the first one. Once we got that first one up and running, it was tuned and reliable, and he could do concerts and recordings with it. We then felt more confident with the other models as they'd show up.
How were other ones being sourced when it was so hard to find the initial one?
I guess people figured out that this was the guy. "These instruments should be in his hands, because he'll make sure they'll live again."
Have any other Ondioline owners contacted you about restoration work after all of this?
The other two Ondioline owners? It's a pretty exclusive little club that Wally's living in! I've been so busy with Wally that I haven't had a chance to look at others. I don't want to say we're confident, but we know more than we did when we started. I could take on other ones, and people have called me about them already.
Wally said you would find little bits of information about modifications that were made to each version.
I doubt that Georges Jenny made more than a few hundred of these. They're all handmade. I guess it evolved, or he may have made slight variations for certain buyers. Even though some of them look very similar, there are subtle variations in construction and circuitry in all of them that I've seen. No two are exactly alike.
Do they all play and function in the same way for the musician?
Yeah. Because of the music he's doing, and the era in which it was done, he needs the latest version of the tube Ondioline, which is like a 1954 or '55 model. In 1957 Georges Jenny published a booklet that describes the whole principle of it and goes into the circuitry. It doesn't cover all models, but Wally had this entire thing translated meticulously. That let me zero in on a couple problems, because there are a few things that aren"t on the schematic but are in the text. There was no alignment or adjustment procedure for certain things. We know the arrival point, the destination; but we were not sure how to get there. I have pages and pages of notes and diagrams in my own notebooks of how we did it.
Is there a plan or a way to document all this information for the future?
Oh, yeah. Wally's meticulous in his research and documentation. He's made it very clear to make sure that we save all the photographs and keep all the notes.
Wally sent me the booklets and information he's produced copies of.
He actually sells all that. You can't get the Ondioline Orchestra t-shirt yet, but you can get the full English translation of the whole technical manual [Above]. What's amazing is that people come to see the concerts and they're literally being shown a piece of the future they never saw. On his first show of the Ondioline Orchestra, Wally flew the inventor's daughter over. I guess she was too young to appreciate what her dad was doing back in the '40s and '50s. She"d never heard it live. During the show, she came over to me with tears streaming down her cheeks, saying, "I can't believe my father's instruments sing again!" There's a massive emotional response.