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Eminent persons - Vladimir Kuzmin

Vladimir Kuzmin

Vladimir Kuzmin is a Russian sound engineer, designer, creator of the original Soviet "military" synthesizer "Polivoks" and other remarkable electric musical instruments.

Vladimir Mikhailovich Kuzmin was born on October 13, 1953 in Vladivostok, and since 1963 has been living in Ekaterinburg (former Sverdlovsk). There he received his degree, having studied at the Sverdlovsk Mining Institute, specializing in "Automation of production processes," and became an electronics engineer. When he was young he was fond of music, he used to be a bass player and a sound engineer in a student band.

His fate brought him through life making him friends with significant people - Vladimir Lugovets and his daughter Olympiada – Kuzmin’s future wife. Vladimir advised Kuzmin to work for the Vector company, which was located in the Urals, and where Lugovets was the head of the department for the development of electronic musical instruments, he was also the developer of the first truly commercially successful Russian electronic keyboard "Faemi".

Vector had two plants: in Sverdlovsk and in Kachkanar. The first is a plant with a long history which originates from mechanical workshops at the General Staff of the Russian Army in St. Petersburg, which were established in 1811, and during the Great Patriotic War, it produced items for the needs of the army. The second one in Kachkanar – Formanta factory - was built in the early 70’s. It was built in order to get more workplaces for the female population of Kachkanar, as there was no actual work for women: in the town-forming enterprise, the mining and processing plant, men's hands were required. And in Formanta, both in assembling as well as in installing, all the women and girls could work after the local vocational school. Since 1975 this factory had been producing musical equipment – electric organs, amplifiers, loudspeakers before the 2000s came.

The music industry simply didn’t exist in the USSR. It’s just that some factories included in their plan the manufacture of various kinds of music equipment only to expand the general production of consumer goods.

The best engineers of the country worked at military and semi-military plants, so it was rightly decided that it would be economically beneficial to start producing goods at these plants for peaceful use: TVs and radio, tape recorders and so on. But such magic and illusive names as electric piano, piano strings or synthesizer were no more than words back than familiar only to professional musicians and amateur music bands, and few people living in or coming to the capital city could manage to get one of these keyboards imported or to buy for big money from some front man of a touring band which appeared to come to USSR. And the rest had to shower directorates of factories and other governing structures with letters reproaching the reluctance or inability of the directorate of these same factories to produce something similar to the foreign instruments which Soviet music needed so much. Similar letters came to the Ural plant "Vector"...

That's when and where Vladimir Kuzmin got to work, and his first venture was the development of the spring reverb "Echo", which he called a “brick” not without a grin. At the same time, he participated in the creation of "Faemi-M", which can be called a "polyphonic version of Faemi." He made sure that the instrument featured such relevant units as portamento effect and filters...

Kuzmin in general was very keen on the idea of creating a synthesizer. He was thinking, in his spare time at work or at home, and drawing schematics in pencil, circuitry of a model of the future product. Initially, he thought that the synthesizer would be given some minimum necessary set of functions, for example, one oscillator, a simple filter, a basic envelope generator and a small keyboard. And in a proper solid suitcase. Then he decided: if you develop something for real, why not make a beast as good as a prototype!

Of course, there was not enough information. After all, it was clear that the synthesizer is not an organ, it has a different structure, a different set of functions and mandatory limits for adjusting the required parameters by the performer. Accordingly, both the circuit and the technical parameters are completely different from the traditional electric organs. Therefore, it was required, first of all, to study prototypes and authentic circuits and the solutions applied in them. And in Soviet times there were no available hardware or schemes which could serve as an example. Vladimir had to carefully study the relevant literature, patents, and supporting materials. And, of course, the samples of Western instruments.

When ensembles and bands from friendly countries came to the city, and they used to bring Crumar, Farfisa and Weltmeister together with them, as well as Moog, Roland and Korg synthesizers, and Vladimir turned to them with a request to borrow instruments for one night to understand the principles of their organization and operating. He was trusted as a specialist, and sometimes even asked to adjust or repair something. It was an experience that is difficult to overestimate and which was extremely beneficial.

Finally, in 1980, he, who had been a crucial part of the plant’s mechanism for more than 4 years, as well as the initiator of the “Soviet wave” of synth making, was instructed to head the development of a new instrument. It wasn’t easy to achieve this agreement, because the very word "synthesizer" was somehow "not ours" and "bourgeois", and the whole synthesizer boom seemed to be temporary and not serious. Nevertheless, the management decided to take a chance, and didn’t fail. To be honest, this is a rare case in the practice of Russian plants back in the day.

During development, a group headed by the engineer Kuzmin, designer Yuri Feofilov and Vladimir’s wife Olympiada Kuzmina, who worked in a group of designers at their enterprise, was created. Later the developer Igor Fedoseyev would join the project.

It was wonderful that they could organize full cycle production, about a hundred people worked at the plant, there was a design bureau, circuit designers, printed circuit boards were manufactured, there was cast production (plastics and non-ferrous metals). How much paper was plagued while the solutions of different options for the layout, the angle of the front panel and other design details kept being thrown out – one might imagine!

Usually for a synthesizer one common board is made, but it was impossible to implement at the factory, therefore Kuzmin opted for the principle of a modular device, convenient for manufacturing: each sound-generating part was made on an independent printed circuit board inserted into the backplane, which makes it easy to extract any part of a synth, like, if you needed it to be repaired or replaced (in order to modify the instrument). That’s how the synthesizer turned out to be a modular one.

For the same reason, Olympiada Kuzmina arranged all the knobs and switches at a sufficient distance from each other so that it would be easier to tweak them, and, at the same time, insert new modules.


The new brainchild was named "Polivoks" - this analog synthesizer had an unusual appearance, inspired by the image of Soviet military radio stations. Its sides looked like tank tracks, the plastic overlays for the graphic elements were applied. The portable suitcase modular synthesizer - open the top cover and see the sloping panel, the controls in combination with the 49-note keyboard, knobs that you want to touch. At that time, military style was popular in foreign design, but there was no synthesizer in this style, as there are no other synths like that today. At the military plant, it would be nearly stupid to ignore such an idea, since the concept was carried out by a militarized enterprise. The unit was defined as instrumental (they couldn’t call it a “field kitchen”, could they?).

Polivoks got two oscillators. Why two? Three in Minimoog, two in Moog Prodigy, one in Micromoog. To put one – seemed not enough, three - a bit too many. Besides, Polivoks implemented a two-voice scheme, when each oscillator monitored its note: the first one is responsible for the top one pressed, the other one - for the bottom one, so the two seemed just right. Oscillators produced five forms of waveforms at the output: triangular, sawtooth and three rectangular types with different duty cycles (pulse width). Portamento in the mono mode goes to both oscillators, and in the duophonic mode – only to one, which gives a peculiar effect, similar to the "pulling" one string to the note of another guitar string. You could input the output signal from one oscillator to another, achieving different kinds of ring modulation effects. Further in the mixer it is possible to smoothly mix signals produced by both oscillators, a noise generator and an external source. There was applied a number of offbeat solutions in the synthesizer architecture, such as the use of reed switches in the keyboard contact group, the absence of capacitors in the circuit of a voltage-controlled filter due to the peculiarities of the used operational amplifiers.

The side effect of the selected filter circuit is in the increased distortion of the sound, which imparts an aggressiveness to Polivoks sound, the periodic operating mode for the envelope generator, which automatically repeats the phases of attack and decay, the switch transmitting the signal of a pressed key, which makes it possible to release the key when performing long sounds and the optocoupler pedal to control the cutoff frequency of the filter.

When the first products were launched, it took weeks of sitting in this plant and make changes in the documentation, in the technique measurement and control on the spot.

Vladimir says that there were some curiosities, for example, the original control knobs were made according to a special project for the synthesizer style and were cast in the factory, they were not painted, but the shop worker had to fill a special groove in front of the" beak "with a white nitro color. Picture dozens of Polivokses put in a row, ready for the next operations, the light goes down, and what do you see? All the Polivokses glowing with a greenish light! Not the Polivokses themselves, but those little dots on the knobs. And there were hundreds of them! The spectacle is mesmerizing as is the sky at night. The thing is they sent the girl to get some paint in another workshop, where she got paint with the phosphorus content, which was intended for some other products. They decided on not making any relaunch, so now somebody possesses exclusive copies of Polivoks with the phosphorescent knobs - kind of a Limited Edition.
Then followed the passage of approvals in various institutions, receiving permissions and signatures on the documentation and in 1984, a series production began at the Kachkanar Radio Plant "Formanta". This sign, which was placed on the synthesizer together with the name "Polivoks", features two stylized conductors on the printed circuit board. Up to 300 units per month were produced...

As a result, the synthesizer was awarded a bronze medal (Exhibition of Economic Achievements), and the leading developers received Author's certificates for the industrial design. The synthesizer was produced until 1991. Since it was an analog model, it grew obsolete. Analog synthesis at that time was about giving up, all over the world they switched to digital synthesis methods, but thanks to the unique sound and appearance, this machine became the most popular and famous in the West among Soviet synthesizers, and the only one which still costs pretty much.

Polivoks has become known throughout the world, it is used by many bands, for example, Franz Ferdinand recorded the album with the help of Polivoks, and Rammstein performed with it live together with Marilyn Manson. Foreign musicians have found a tool for revealing new possibilities and an amusing sound in the Soviet machine. As a generator of all kinds of noises, screams, booms, bahs and other things, it is incomparable. You can voice a bomber with it! With the motor roaring, bomb whistling and exploding, locomotive choo-choo, engine humming, pistol shooting - an excellent military music box. Moreover, the reality of synthesized sounds is quite high.

Polivoks allows creating some effects and sounds you won’t get from other synthesizers. Many people use this particular synthesizer because of the shades and nuances it gives. The Soviet components sound in a slightly different manner. Circuitry there is completely unique, that's why the sound differs, because the scheme for "Polivoks" couldn’t be copied - Kuzmin had to come up with it himself, and original blocks and modules were used.

Vladimir Kuzmin worked at the "Vector" plant from 1976 to 1991, having been through from the research engineer to the chief designer of electronic musical instruments. He participated in the development of vocoder, tone generator, MIDI keyboard, remote MIDI controller RC-11K. Since 1991 he’d worked at the Kachkanar Radio Factory "Formanta", where he also worked on the design of new music devices.

He is the author of such developments as:

The spring reverberator "Echo" - an electronic device that added the echo effect to the sound signal by electro-mechanical processing. The main purpose of this device is to simulate the sound in a large room. Wall reflection of the sound gives a characteristic echo effect, a repetition of a phrase, etc., which is called reverberation.

The electric organ with the autorhythm "Manual" is a polyphonic electric organ with register synthesis and built-in percussion accompaniment (16 patterns and 5 percussion instruments). The instrument can be put on its legs or fixed on the front deck of the piano. The unit has built-in speakers as well as external ones.

"FAEMI-M" is already a real electric organ with 12 master oscillators and register synthesis. As well as the previous model "FAEMI", it has a built-in loudspeaker, can be powered by a battery, and features an accordion-sized keyboard.

"Quintet" is a five-octave string piano. The instrument offers piano, harpsichord, brass and string instrument sounds. The device features a unison function with adjustable detuning which makes choral sounding very natural.

The analog-digital synthesizer "Maestro" is the first serial microprocessor-based synthesizer. The instrument offers 20 fixed timbres of the main groups of instruments, chorus effect, arpeggiator capable of saving the sequence of pressed notes, and also a joystick for changing the pitch and the depth of the vibrato.
The digital synthesizer with auto accompaniment "Arton IK-51" is a completely digital synthesizer, similar to the "Yamaha PSR" series, with auto accompaniment function (bass, rhythm, percussion). Wavetable timbre synthesis, for drum sounds – sample of a complete sound. For the first time in Russia, a full MIDI protocol support was featured.

Vocal synthesizer "VS-34". It should be noted that this is a rare instrument - about 100 units were released. It allows synthesizing male and female voices pronouncing "a", "o", "u", "e" sounds. It was invented to help amateur bands, if, for example, there are guitarists, a soloist, and there are no backing vocals, i.e. nobody can sing along with the ensemble, then with VS-34 you can thicken your singing with electronic voices. With a small gray box generating up to 30 voices you get a real choir. It sounds a bit too electronic, but still makes up for the lack of vocalists. You can take both low male and high female notes.
In 1991 when the whole industry collapsed and the Soviet Union ceased to exist, Vladimir Kuzmin organized his consulting company related to acoustics. Then it entered the "Musical Arsenal", where he’s been working so far.

Since 1992 he has been head of the Ural Center for Music Technology. In 1992 he took an active part in the organization and support of the scientific and technical conference and technical exhibition of the radio plant "Formanta", held within the Festival of electronic music (he made a report on new developments of musical instruments). From 1997 to 2000 he taught "Basics of electroacoustics" at the sound engineering department of the M.P. Mussorgsky Ural State Conservatory, as well as has been collaborating with the studio of electroacoustic music, participates in joint projects on informatization and new technologies in music education.

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