Switched-On Bach

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Switched-On Bach
Switched-On Bach first sleeve (seated Bach).jpeg
First sleeve ("seated Bach")
Studio album by Wendy Carlos
Released 1968
Recorded 1968
Genre Electronic, classical
Length 39:45
Label Columbia
Producer Rachel Elkind
Wendy Carlos chronology
Switched-On Bach
The Well-Tempered Synthesizer
Professional ratings
Review scores
Source Rating
Allmusic 3.5/5 stars[1]

Switched-On Bach is a musical album by Wendy Carlos (originally under the name of Walter Carlos) and Benjamin Folkman, produced by Carlos and Rachel Elkind and released in March 1968 by Columbia Masterworks Records. It played a key role in popularizing classical music performed on electronic synthesizers, instruments which had until then been relegated to experimental and "pop" music. This fostered a significant increase in interest in electronically rendered music in general, and the Moog synthesizer in particular.

Switched-On Bach was one of the first classical albums to sell 500,000 copies. Entering the top 40 of the Billboard 200 pop chart on March 1, 1969, it climbed quickly to the Top 10; it stayed in the Top 40 for 17 weeks,[2] and in the Top 200 for more than a year. In the 1969 Grammy Awards, the album took three prizes: Best Classical Album, Best Classical Performance – Instrumental Soloist or Soloists (with or without orchestra) and Best Engineered Classical Recording.


The album consists of pieces by Johann Sebastian Bach, performed on a Moog synthesizer, a modular synthesizer system, one of which can be seen on the album cover. Switched-On Bach was recorded on a custom-built eight-track recorder (constructed by Carlos from superseded Ampex components). This was long before MIDI sequencers or polyphonic keyboards. Recording was a tedious and time-consuming process—each of the pieces had to be assembled one part at a time. Carlos, Elkind and Folkman devoted many hours to experimenting with suitable synthetic sounds for each voice and part.

Due to the monophonic nature of the Moog instrument, Carlos never had the option of recording multiple notes on the same track and in the same take. The simplest chordal constructions required multi-tracking, synchronization, and perfect timing, adding greatly to the overall time consumed by the project.[3]

Carlos, a highly proficient musician and studio engineer and a former student of Vladimir Ussachevsky, worked closely with synthesizer designer Robert Moog throughout the recording process, testing his components and suggesting many improvements. In 1968, not long before the album was released, Moog gave a paper at the annual Audio Engineering Society conference, where he played one of Carlos' completed recordings:

"At the end of the talk I said to this fairly big audience, 'As an example of multi-track electronic music studio composition technique, I would like to play an excerpt of a record that's about to be released of some music by Bach.' It was the last movement of Walter's Brandenburg No. 3. I walked off the stage and went to the back of the auditorium while people were listening, and I could feel it in the air. They were jumping out of their skins. These technical people were involved in so much flim-flam, so much shoddy, opportunistic stuff, and here was something that was just impeccably done and had obvious musical content and was totally innovative. The tape got a standing ovation."
"CBS had no idea what they had in Switched-On Bach. When it came out, they lumped it in at a studio press party for Terry Riley's In C and an abysmal record called Rock and Other Four Letter Words. Carlos was angered by this, so he refused to come. So CBS, frantic to have some representation, asked me to demonstrate the synthesizer. I remember there was a nice big bowl of joints on top of the mixing console, and Terry Riley was there in his white Jesus suit, up on a pedestal, playing live on a Farfisa electronic organ against a backup of tape delays. Rock and Other Four Letter Words went on to sell a few thousand records. In C sold a few tens of thousands. Switched-On Bach sold over a million, and just keeps going on and on."[4]


The album received a mixed reaction at the time of its release. Some critics reviled it for trivializing the work of one of the most revered classical composers of all time, but others were excited by the freshness of the sound and the virtuosity that went into its creation. No less an authority than Glenn Gould said: "Carlos's realization of the Fourth Brandenburg Concerto [sic] is, to put it bluntly, the finest performance of any of the Brandenburgs—live, canned, or intuited—I’ve ever heard."[5] Giorgio Moroder credits the album as the one that brought synthesisers to his attention.[6]

Regardless of the negative reviews, the album caught the public attention and sold better than anyone had expected. Suddenly Moog's company found itself inundated with requests from record producers for Moog systems, and a rash of synthesizer albums were released to capitalise on the popularity of the new sound.

Some of these albums were similar to Switched-On Bach, in being synthesized versions of classical pieces, including:

Others capitalised on the Moog craze by creating "Switched-On" versions of contemporary artists and other genres:

Columbia Records released an all-orchestral album with the same playlist as Switched-On Bach, with humorous liner notes:

Track listing[edit]

First Movement (Allegro) of Brandenburg Concerto Number 3.

Problems playing this file? See media help.

Side one[edit]

  1. "Sinfonia to Cantata No. 29" - 3:20
  2. "Air on a G String" (from Orchestral Suite No. 3) - 2:27
  3. "Two-Part Invention in F Major" - 0:40
  4. "Two-Part Invention in B Flat Major" - 1:30
  5. "Two-Part Invention in D Minor" - 0:55
  6. "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" (from Cantata No. 147) - 2:56
  7. "Prelude and Fugue No. 7 in E Flat Major" (from Well-Tempered Clavier) - 7:07

Side two[edit]

  1. "Prelude and Fugue No. 2 in C Minor" (from Well-Tempered Clavier) - 2:43
  2. "Chorale Prelude" "Wachet Auf" - 3:37
  3. "Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G Major - Allegro" - 6:35
  4. "Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G Major - Adagio" - 2:50 (see note)
  5. "Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G Major - Allegro" - 5:05
  • Note: the Adagio of Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 is a composition by Carlos and Folkman as an attempt to replicate Bach's most daring quasi-improvisatory style. J.S. Bach provided only a Phrygian cadence consisting of two chords (A minor and B) between the two movements in G major, and quite possibly intended this to be heard at the close of a keyboard improvisation.


  • Wendy Carlos - Keyboards, programming
  • Benjamin Folkman - supplementary keyboards
  • Rachel Elkind - Producer, liner notes
  • Robert Moog - liner notes



The album has been released with two different covers. The most-common one shows a photograph of a man dressed as Johann Sebastian Bach standing in front of a Moog modular synthesizer. The first pressings, however, showed Bach seated. Carlos (and producer Rachel Elkind) objected to the original cover and had it replaced, noting it "was a clownish, trivializing image of a mugging Bach, supposedly hearing some absurd sound from his earphones. That these were plugged into the input, not output, of a 914 Filter module, which in turn was connected to nothing, assured that silence is all that would have greeted Johann Sebastian's ears."[7] The German version of the album was published with the original "objectionable" cover photo and had the subtitle (which appeared to be the title, as it was at the top of the cover): "Barock-Revolution oder die seltsamen Abendteuer des J.S. Bach im Land der Elektronen" or "Baroque Revolution or the Unusual Adventures of J.S. Bach in the Land of Electrons."

Switched-On Bach 2000[edit]

Carlos released Switched-On Bach 2000 in 1992 to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the original album's release. It is essentially a remake of the original LP — not a re-release — using state-of-the-art (as of 1992) digital synthesizers and computer-assisted recording. Although the CD contains the same track listing as the original, with the additional inclusion of a) a brief, introductory original composition styled as a birthday fanfare for the project and b) Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565 at the close of the album, the new digital synth sounds, in period tunings, are radically different in feeling, prompting some criticism from disappointed fans.

Switched-On Boxed Set[edit]

In 1999, Carlos released the Switched-On Boxed Set, a lavishly produced 4-CD boxset comprising the following albums in their original form:

The albums have been remastered by Carlos and include some bonus tracks. The boxset also includes a 150 page booklet with photos, production notes, digital links to her website, etc.

Remastered edition[edit]

In 2001, Carlos released a remastered edition of Switched-On Bach. It includes a new bonus track, "Initial Experiments, demonstration".

Switched-On Bach was recorded originally on a custom 8-track 1" (Ampex 300/351) tape machine, then mixed to stereo premasters using a two-track 1/4" Ampex. The mixes were edited and transferred using equalization and level optimization to the final masters, using Dolby A. For this new edition we began with the first generation premasters. The standards today do not require most of the EQ and gain riding steps used in 1968, so only the main levels were matched to the original releases. This meant we could make an optimum Hi-D 20-bit transfer, and perform these basic adjustments all within a 24 bit environment. From these definitive transfers, a release master was next prepared. All tracks were meticulously fine-tuned, cleaned and optimized over a period of several weeks, as with the other ESD masters in this series. You may rest assured that this is the best these recordings have ever sounded.[8]

— Wendy Carlos, album liner notes.


  1. ^ Allmusic review
  2. ^ Joel Whitburn. Top 40 Albums. New York: Billboard Books.
  3. ^ Thom Holmes. Electronic and Experimental Music." New York: Routledge. 2008
  4. ^ Robert Moog, quoted in Vintage Synthesizers by Mark Vail (Miller Freeman, Inc.)
  5. ^ http://lineout.thestranger.com/2008/05/wendy_carlos_switchedon_brandenburgs
  6. ^ Red Bull Music Academy Lecture
  7. ^ Switched-On Boxed Set liner notes
  8. ^ Carlos, Wendy. "Wendy Carlos, S-OB". Retrieved February 19, 2015. 

External links[edit]