6.18.2009

Synthz


Thoughts on synths here. I haven't talked about it much online, but I have spent the last few years in day jobs dealing with electronics that either make, record, or reproduce music. I probably have too much to say it about it all, and plans for an extensive post explaining recording and reproduction, replete with passages describing the ethics of certain perspectives, keep falling through due to the sheer ambition of the project.  

Some commentary:
1. I do agree that the Oberheims are probably the best out there as a line on the whole, though the affordability mentioned in relation to them is slightly deceptive. The Matrix6r is certinly a reasonably-priced model, usually going for around $350-500-ish on eBay, though the bigger brothers of this model, the Xpander and Matrix12, the ones that actually provide enough control capabilities to obviate the need for an external box (which raises the price of the investment), run more towards $2,000-$2,750 and $3,000-$5,000 respectively. The soon-to-be-reissued(!) SEM module runs towards $1,000, is monophonic (meaning it only plays one note at a time), and requires an external keyboard. Price-wise it runs towards the middle of the monosynth spectrum. The 4- and 8-voice models almost take you to used-car territory in pricing. As for the OB8, expect to pay around $1,500-$2,500.

2. Surprised that Matthew finds Rolands to be nasty. Those boards are such a fixture in dance music that it is probably impossible to hear five classic records from the genre and avoid hearing a Roland sound or a Roland-inspired one. The Rolands are mostly known for their strings, and their general warmth, compared to many Oberheims, which have a more brassy quality (which I love equally, if not slightly more). Here is one of my favorite Rolands, played by one of the better Youtube synthesists. Great evocative pads, and it's a digital synth!



3. As a poster on Vintagesynth, I have to comment a bit on the characterization of the board. Most of the technical discussions, when it comes down to it, are about the sound. The endless debates about chips versus discrete, VCO versus DCO, etc., are all sonic debates. The most fetishized synths out there, like the Roland Jupiter 8, the Sequential Prophet 5, and the Yamaha CS-80, have for the most part, fairly mediocre specifications, and can be easily outdone in terms of processing power by even the most modest synths on the market today, and yet, they do have special sounds, all of them, and are evocative on even the simplest patches (not to start the endless software vs. hardware debate here, but the frustrating aspect of software is that making it sound good, while entirely possible, requires so much more processing, so much more [sound-degrading] stuff in the signal path, that, in the end, the immediacy can be lost, whereas pressing any button and turning any knob on an Oberheim OBx while more likely result in something special almost immediately).

4. Furthermore, some of the deepest and most complex synths out there are heavily undervalued right now. Most synthesists stop at learning subtractive synthesis (the category of synthesis to which all aforementioned synths belong), but other styles, especially additive and FM, remain comparatively unexplored. The synthesizers that best exemplify these styles, like some members of the Yamaha SY series (for FM), and the Kawai K5000x (for additive), are quite cheap on the used market and, though they have a much higher learning curve than other synths, promise the possibility of creating the few sound nobody has heard before (and, being digital, although not as warm as the best analogs, offer a distinctly glassy and ethereal palate that is all but impossible to render on most analog synths.

5. In fact, "digital" and "hard to program" are the words that make my ears perk up at this point. Part of the allure of the classic synths is the one-knob-per-function control systems that add a certain immediacy to the music-making process. However, the desire for easy control tends to prove overly deterministic in the perceived value of synths out there. To put it another way, all of the really expensive ones have lots of knobs and usually fairly limited functionality. Of course, classic analog sounds have a very important place in the making of any music based on synthesizers, yet the modernist narrative of ever-deeper synths and ever-newer sounds started to curve from its linear path back into a circle as the 90s wore on and people turned back towards classic sounds and classic synth architectures. The most maligned and, therefore, the most interesting to me, synths out there right now are those models from the late 80s and early 90s that combined infinite sonic possibilities with imposing interfaces, and I am very interested in adding one or two pieces from this era to my incredibly modest studio someday.  

Some classic originals:

Roland VP-330 (1979)


Sequential Circuits Prophet 5 (Late 1970s - Early 1980s)

Roland Jupiter 6 (1983)

90s Vintage-Inspired Recreations:

Clavia Nord Lead (1995)

Roland JP8000 (1996)

And finally, the (comparatively) imposing minimalism of the late 80s and early 90s:


Roland R8 (1989-1992)

Roland JD-800 (1991-1993)

Korg M1 (1988-1994)

Yamaha SY77 (1990)

5.  Finally, the subculture of synthesists on Youtube is very enjoyable for geeks like me. My favorite participants are RetroSound and Jexus. RetroSound's videos mostly feature the classics, albeit the affordable ones, and also some of the better-sounding digital synths. Jexus, on the other hand, is an interesting character. He mostly focuses on maligned, cheap gear, and through sheer skill of programming, wrenches amazing sounds out of the neglected pieces he champions. His videos can be read as contextually subversive as he is implicitly insulting those synthesists who tend to amass large collections of classic gear but never learn to program interesting sounds or make interesting music. Although Matthew is right in saying that each board has its character regardless of the talents of the user, the right user can turn the character of any synth into something positive and musical. 

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