Retromania - Synth Edition

That older synthesizers, for the most part, sound better, has been an article of faith for years and years now. This was discussed a bit here. A little more history:

If virtual analogs and "groove box" sequencer/sampler/drum machines pitched towards the aspiring dance musician were the hallmarks of the mid-to-late 1990s and early 2000s, the middle of the past decade saw a relative lull in hardware products aimed squarely at the electronic music producer (the products of Moog, Elektron and Dave Smith Instruments are notable exceptions). Software took over, and for the most part, the major companies (Yamaha, Roland, Korg) responded with tepid updates of their hardware workstations (devices generally aimed at keyboard players in bands who need "real instrument sounds" and people who compose/produce outside the house/techno-derived electronic music sphere).
Yamaha RS-7000 Sequencer/Sampler/Drum Machine(2001)
Dave Smith Instruments Poly Evolver Synthesizer (2005)

Roland Fantom X7 Workstation (2004)
For those paying attention, those interested in sound design, the real action was happening in the world of boutique manufacturing. One of the oldest forms of the synthesizer, the modular, was making a comeback. Better MIDI to control voltage converters, more-stable oscillators and the affordability of digital multi-tracking meant that the modular became less of an obtuse and ponderous indulgence and more a useful tool. Manufacturers who had been working seemingly covertly for years and upstart basement/garage dreamers sensed their opportunity and responded in kind; there is now a massive diversity in module design across multiple formats that dwarfs what was available throughout the late 1960s, 1970s, and early 1980s. While consumer demand is partially responsible for this, the, well, modular nature of modular synthesizers was certainly a boon to manufacturers of all levels of skill and capitalization. The upfront costs for developing a new synthesizer are significantly higher than those of developing a single module, and the still-cultish nature of the market sector ensured that nobody would have to have the cash to manufacture thousands, or even hundred of modules, at the time of release.

Moog Modular System 55 Synthesizer (1973)

Modcan Modular Synthesizer (a contemporary example)
Simultaneous to the increased popularity of modulars, the increased popularity of software also, ironically, created more demand for hardware. Experienced users who tended to default towards interest in new things, after having sold collections of hardware built over many years towards switching to more efficient software-based setups (and lets be clear: on the level of individual units, using hardware is generally easier, but having a whole studio of hardware, with the all the cables that go with it, all the MIDI routing headaches, is a hassle easily on par with any issues one runs into with computers), found themselves disappointed with the sound quality of most software synthesizers and the use of the computer mouse or generally-flimsy hardware controllers to interact with them. Longing again for their hardware days, these users found that prices had gone up as the classic hardware synths became more rare over the years, and the market had become globalized with the increased popularity of eBay and the price-fixing that seems inherent in the internet marketplace (more on this in the future).

While experienced users dealt with the problems mentioned above, those new to electronic music production, people with no experience of the "better days" of high-end hardware synthesizers made to cost-no-object standards meant to be sold to keyboard players of bands who were drowning in major label advance money, embraced software in droves. They must have noticed, at some point, however, that most of the best software programs had user interfaces and sound engines modeled after older hardware synthesizers. Turning to the Internet for understanding, they would have found countless threads by the aforementioned experienced users, who had actually traded in real Roland Jupiter 8s for software versions of them, lamenting the marked difference in quality. And so new producers became part of the demand for older synths as well.
Roland Jupiter 8 Synthesizer (1981)
Arturia Jupiter 8 Software Synthesizer (c. 2007)
It's hard to say when this demand reached a critical mass. It became apparent to me around 2007 as I began to see the prices of older synthesizers climb at a seemingly-unprecedented rate. At a certain point, prices for some vintage synthesizers began to exceed contemporary manufacturing costs for the same or a similar item.

While Moog had been making the Voyager, a synthesizer somewhat similar to the classic Moog Minimoog of the 1970s, since 2002, I feel that the real sign that things were changing on a mass level was Tom Oberheim's re-release of his classic SEM synthesizer. While the Moog Voyager updated the Minimoog with contemporary features like MIDI and was priced for the serious musician at around $3500, the SEM, partially due to size, lack of keyboard, relative simplicity of design and relative lack of features, was priced significantly lower at less than $1000 for the MIDI-less version. Suddenly, a new, fully-functional analog synth reproducing a pre-existing design was available at an affordable price.

Concurrent with and, especially, after the release of the SEM, the market was flooded with all manner of monophonic synthesizers inspired by classic designs and, in some cases, lacking basic amenities like patch storage, that most synthesists had come to expect since at least 1982. While many don't specifically emulate a previous design, most are designed in the spirit of the 1970s, with the most notable example being the Arturia MiniBrute (the first analog offering from a company that initially only made software [see above]).

Tom Oberheim SEM Synthesizer (2009)

Arturia MiniBrute Synthesizer (c. 2011)
The increased demand for classic hardware has culminated in developments that would have seemed unthinkable even a few years ago: after reissuing their 1978 MS-20 in a "mini" version last year, and a few days after Roland announced virtual analog recreations of some of their classic machines (808, 909, 303, System 100 mono), Korg has announced that they are reissuing the Arp Odyssey synthesizer, first released in 1972.

It will be interesting to see what happens. Just as common as the complaints by former and current Jupiter 8/Prophet5/OBX owners, etc., that the software just doesn't quite do it, are the complaints by former and current owners of Minimoogs, SEMs, MS-20s, etc., that the new hardware just doesn't quite have the character of the old…

… (and it is important to note that the real or perceived weaknesses of hardware recreations, just as with their software counterparts, have not served to decrease the prices of the originals)

I guess here is where the editorial content comes in, but this all seems an object of remote curiosity to me more than something to feel angry or happy about. Any good electronic music studio has a mixture of old and new synthesizers, and old synthesizers can be programmed to make more contemporary sounds, and vice-versa. Modulars are a good example of this. Sure, I can go out and get a new filter for my modular modeled to sound like the filter from a Roland synth from 1979, but I can send a digital oscillator into that filter, can overdrive that filter, can modulate the frequency cutoff of that filter at audio rate at non-repeating intervals, etc. - i.e., all things that can't be done if I were to own that actual Roland synth from 1979. Likewise, the output of the new Korg Arp Odyssey could be sent to a digital distortion box and then into a computer for treatment by an impulse-based reverb plugin.

That being said, this wouldn't be this if it wasn't for this: the caveats.

I guess, on a general level, I feel a certain disappointment in the focus on recreating synths from the analog era, a disappointment mitigated by the fact that I couldn't afford the classic synths when they were cheap because I was young and didn't have the means, and can't afford them now because, even with a decent job, the ones I really want have gone up in price so dramatically over the last few years that I am just as unable to afford them. In other words, when the retro trend finally reaches the polyphonic synth era, I may be in the market.

So if the retro trend might be beneficial to me and the creative nature of synthesizers means that hardware meant to sound like older hardware can be used in contemporary ways, what is the nature of my disappointment? I guess it comes partially from the desire to see new forms of synthesis realized in hardware (as it has been in software) and partially from the desire to see new kinds of user interfaces, preferably a combination of both (there have been some intriguing options released on iPad, but, compared to the possibility of a design integrating a touchscreen, dedicated hardware controllers, a keyboard or others means of pitch source generation, and high-quality digital-to-analog converters married to great-sounding post-conversion analog stage, the iPad feels like a compromise). Sort of sad that, if we were to measure "futurism" in terms of a synth's quantity of colored lights (actually not unreasonable given that many who put together studios love the aesthetic feeling of being surrounded by what feels like the control panel of a spaceship) then Roland's monophonic virtual recreation of their 1970s mono synths, the AIRA System-1, sure to sound vaguely disappointing compared to the originals, is the most futuristic-looking hardware synth that will be released this year…

Borderlands Synthesizer for iPad (2012)
Roland AIRA System-1 Synthesizer (2014)

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