Switched-On Bach

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Switched-On Bach
Switched-On Bach first sleeve (seated Bach).jpeg
Studio album by Wendy Carlos
Released October 1968
Recorded 1968 in New York City, New York, US
Genre Electronic, classical
Length 39:45
Label Columbia Masterworks
Producer Wendy Carlos, Rachel Elkind
Wendy Carlos chronology
Switched-On Bach
The Well-Tempered Synthesizer
(1969)The Well-Tempered Synthesizer1969

Switched-On Bach is the first studio album by the American musician and composer Wendy Carlos, released under her birth name Walter Carlos in October 1968 by Columbia Records. Produced by Carlos and Rachel Elkind, the album is a collection of pieces by Johann Sebastian Bach performed by Carlos and Benjamin Folkman on a Moog synthesizer. It played a key role in bringing synthesizers to popular music, which had until then been mostly used in experimental music.

Switched-On Bach peaked on the US Billboard 200 chart at number 10 and topped its Classical Albums chart from 1969 to 1972. The album had sold over one million copies by June 1974 and in 1986 became the second classical album in history to be certified Platinum by the RIAA. In 1970, the album won three Grammy Awards: Best Classical Album, Best Classical Performance – Instrumental Soloist or Soloists (With or Without Orchestra), and Best Engineered Classical Recording.



Around 1967, Carlos asked Rachel Elkind to listen to several of Carlos' electronic compositions from ten years prior and those written with friend Benjamin Folkman from 1964 at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center in New York City. One of the recordings was a rendition of Two-Part Invention in F major by Johann Sebastian Bach which Carlos described as "charming". Soon after, Carlos began plans to produce an album featuring a selection of Bach pieces performed on a synthesizer, not in attempt to revive Bach's name, but with the intention of using the novel technology to make "appealing music you could really listen to", not "ugly" music being produced by avant-garde musicians around the same time.[1] When the recording of Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G major was completed, Elkind thought the track exceeded her "already high expectations" for the project, and was assigned as the album's producer. Elkind then contacted her friend, producer and conductor Ettore Stratta at Columbia Records, who "generously spread his enthusiasm throughout the rest of the company" and provided assistance in the making of the album, along with Paul Myers of Columbia Masterworks Records who granted Carlos, Folkman, and Elkind artistic freedom to record and release it.[2]


Switched-On Bach features ten pieces by Bach available under the public domain,[2] performed by Carlos with assistance from Folkman on a modular Moog synthesizer. Carlos worked closely with Robert Moog, designer of the instrument, throughout the recording process, testing his components and suggesting improvements to the model. The album was recorded in a studio in the basement of a brownstone building acquired by Carlos and Elkind in the West Side of Manhattan in New York City,[3] using a custom-built 8-track recording machine constructed by Carlos from components built by Ampex.

Recording was a tedious and time-consuming process; as Moog synthesizers are monophonic, meaning only one note can be played at a time, each track was assembled one at a time. According to Carlos: "You had to release the note before you could make the next note start, which meant you had to play with a detached feeling on the keyboard, which was really very disturbing in making music."[4] The instrument was unreliable and often went out of tune; Carlos recalled hitting it with a hammer prior to recording to obtain correct levels. After several notes were played, it was checked once again to make sure it had not "drifted".[4] Switched-On Bach took, according to Carlos, approximately five months and a total of one thousand hours to produce.[5]

Bach provided only two chords for the second movement of the Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G Major, intending that the musician would improvise on these chords. Carlos carefully constructed this piece to showcase the electronic capabilities of the Moog.[6]

Sleeve design[edit]

The album has been released with two different front covers. The most common features a man dressed as Bach, standing in front of a Moog synthesizer. Early pressings of the vinyl feature the character seated. Carlos and 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]


In 1968, shortly before the release of Switched-On Bach, Moog spoke at the annual Audio Engineering Society conference and played one of Carlos' completed recordings from the album. Moog recalled: "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."[8]

Switched-On Bach was released in October 1968 and was a commercial success which contributed to the public's interest in the use of synthesizers in popular music. In 1969, it entered the top 40 on the US Billboard 200 before it reached a peak of No. 10 that year for a total of 59 weeks on the chart.[9] From January 1969 to January 1972, the album was No. 1 on the Billboard Classical Albums chart.[10] In February 1974, Columbia Records estimated 960,000 copies of the album had been sold in the US.[3] In June that year, Billboard reported the album's sales surpassed one million, the second classical music record in history to achieve the feat. In August 1969, it was certified Gold by the Recording Industry Association of America, signifying sales in excess of $1 million.[11] It reached Platinum certification in November 1986.[12]

In 1970, the album won three Grammy Awards: Best Classical Album, Best Classical Performance – Instrumental Soloist or Soloists (With or Without Orchestra), and Best Engineered Classical Recording.


Professional ratings
Review scores
Allmusic3.5/5 stars[13]

At the time of release, the album was met with a negative response from some Bach purists and classical music traditionalists, but the record gained popularity from many younger listeners of contemporary music artists.[13] In a retrospective review for AllMusic, Bruce Eder gave the album a rating of three-and-a-half stars out of five. He noted Carlos' approach "was highly musical in ways that ordinary listeners could appreciate ... characterized by ... amazing sensitivity and finely wrought nuances, in timbre, tone, and expressiveness."[13] Canadian pianist Glenn Gould spoke highly of Switched-On Bach, saying: "The whole record, in fact, is one of the most startling achievements of the recording industry in this generation and certainly one of the great feats in the history of 'keyboard' performance".[14] Italian recording artist Giorgio Moroder credits the album as the one that brought synthesizers to his attention.[15]

Following the album's success, Moog received requests from producers and artists for his synthesizers and a number of synthesizer albums were released to capitalise on the popularity of the instrument. Notable examples of this trend include Switched-On Rock by the Moog Machine, and Music to Moog By by Gershon Kingsley, both released in 1969.[16][17][18]

Moog commented on the album's success: "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.".[8]

In 1972, Columbia Records released an all-orchestral album with the same playlist as Switched-On Bach, with humorous liner notes titled Switched Off Bach by E. Power Biggs, Zoltán Rozsnyai, Pablo Casals, and Glenn Gould.


In 1992, Carlos released Switched-On Bach 2000 to commemorate the 25th anniversary of her first album, featuring a re-recording of the record using digital synthesizers and computer-assisted recording with an added introductory composition styled as a birthday fanfare for the project. Switched-On Bach was remastered and included as part of the Switched-On Boxed Set, a four-CD box set released in 1999 with The Well-Tempered Synthesizer, Switched-On Bach II, and Switched-On Brandenburgs.

In 2001, a remastered edition of Switched-On Bach was released with a previously unreleased track, "Initial Experiments, demonstration". Carlos wrote: "You may rest assured that this is the best these recordings have ever sounded."[19]

Track listing[edit]

Side one
  1. "Sinfonia to Cantata No. 29" – 3:20
  2. "Air on a G String" – 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" – 2:56
  7. "Prelude and Fugue No. 7 in E-Flat Major" (From Book I of The Well-Tempered Clavier) – 7:07
Side two
  1. "Prelude and Fugue No. 2 in C Minor" (From Book I of The Well-Tempered Clavier) – 2:43
  2. "Chorale Prelude 'Wachet Auf'" – 3:37
  3. "Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G Major - First Movement" – 6:35
  4. "Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G Major - Second Movement" – 2:50
  5. "Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G Major - Third Movement" – 5:05

Note: For the second movement of Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 Bach provided only two chords for musicians to improvise over. On this album the movement is written by Carlos and Elkind.



Chart (1968–69) Peak
German Albums (Offizielle Top 100)[20] 22
US Billboard 200[9] 10


  1. ^ Wendy Carlos interview with Carol Wright from November 1999 edition of New Age Voice.
  2. ^ a b Switched-On Bach (Media notes). Columbia Masterworks Records. 1968. MS 7194. 
  3. ^ a b 16 February 1974 edition of Billboard magazine, page 27
  4. ^ a b Miller, Chuck (January 23, 2004). "Wendy Carlos: In the Moog". Goldmine (613 ed.): 47–48. 
  5. ^ 15 August 1992 edition of Billboard magazine, page 67
  6. ^ Peraino, Judith A. (January 8, 2015). "Synthesizing difference: early synthpop". In Olivia Bloechl; Melanie Lowe; Jeffrey Kallberg. Rethinking Difference in Music Scholarship. Cambridge University Press. p. 301. ISBN 9781107026674. 
  7. ^ Switched-On Boxed Set liner notes
  8. ^ a b Robert Moog, quoted in Vintage Synthesizers by Mark Vail (Miller Freeman, Inc.)
  9. ^ a b 3 October 1998 edition of Billboard magazine, page 69
  10. ^ 18 July 1992 edition of Billboard magazine, page 83.
  11. ^ 8 June 1974 edition of Billboard magazine, page 32.
  12. ^ https://www.riaa.com/gold-platinum/?tab_active=default-award&se=wendy+carlos#search_section
  13. ^ a b c Allmusic review
  14. ^ Analog Days: The Invention and Impact of the Moog Synthesizer, page 147.
  15. ^ Red Bull Music Academy Lecture
  16. ^ Brend, Mark (2012). The Sound of Tomorrow: How Electronic Music Was Smuggled into the Mainstream. A&C Black. p. 17. ISBN 9781623565299. 
  17. ^ Pinch, Trevor J. (March 5, 2015). "Between Technology and Music: Distributed Creativity and Liminal Spaces in the Early History of Electronic Music Synthesizers". In Raghu Garud; Barbara Simpson; Ann Langley; Haridimos Tsoukas. The Emergence of Novelty in Organizations. Oxford University Press. p. 135. ISBN 9780198728313. 
  18. ^ Pinch, Trevor J.; Trocco, Frank (June 30, 2009). Analog Days: The Invention and Impact of the Moog Synthesizer. Harvard University Press. pp. 166–7. ISBN 9780674042162. 
  19. ^ Carlos, Wendy. "Wendy Carlos, S-OB". Retrieved February 19, 2015. 
  20. ^ "Wendy Carlos – Switched-On Bach" (in French). Hung Medien. Retrieved 24 April 2016.

External links[edit]