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Is Synthesis Advancing?



Absolutely, but a lot of instruments that look backward are being released – and that’s a good thing, as Nick Batzdorf philosophizes.

Don’t worry, innovation isn’t dead. New synthesizers are going to continue improving and offering new sounds.

But a VI-Control forum user named tressie5 – presumably not the name his parents gave him (pretty sure it’s a him) – had an interesting, sardonic reaction to the recent Oberheim OB-X8 announcement that was inadvertent food for thought.

He commented that all we’re seeing is 50-year-old synths being re-issued, there’s nothing new, much like violins.

Well, I’m certainly not alone in having a very different perspective. 

But why are we so interested in synths that are either literal reissues or adaptations of analog and early digital instruments that suggest ’70s and ’80s? Ditto modular synthesis?

The easy answer to those questions, a great way to make this a very short article, would simply be to advise everyone to listen to Michael Whalen’s “Imaginary Trains” album – something I’ve been doing repeatedly and compulsively since interviewing him a few weeks ago. It’s a legitimate synth tour de force. You can also watch his concert on YouTube here.

Alas, we writers really like our words, so let’s continue. 

First, the bleedin’ obvious, broad-stroke responses; we’ll get to the main point of this article in a couple hundred words:

Because they’re cool. Duh. What can you say? Technology has advanced a lot since the early days of synthesis, but it’s not like Bob Moog, Tom Oberheim, Dave Smith, Alan Perlman, and other designers didn’t know what they were doing back then.

And there’s the fun factor. The hands-on feel, the inspiration. They look impressive on stage, and maybe to clients.

Because they make gorgeous sounds. Duh. While digital audio has certainly come a long way since the first digital synths, analog audio was already very mature when synths first became popular.

It’s more than the audio quality, of course, it’s the sound of the various circuits in the instruments – especially the filters.

And it’s more than the sound of the various circuits, it’s the sounds themselves. That applies to the most basic synth sounds. There’s nothing like a gorgeous, rich sawtooth sound, for example.

Because they *aren’t* good at emulating acoustic instruments. You’re going to use a MiniMoog to sound like a synth – because that’s what it is! If you want to emulate an orchestra, you’ll use a sample library.

Because limitations can be an advantage. (Okay, this is somewhat less bleedin’ obvious than the previous points.)

Do you need more than four voices to express your musical ideas?

Probably! But sometimes the challenge of having to work with limited resources can produce creative results, and/or force you to come up with stronger musical elements (rather than hiding lesser ones behind complexity).

Art history is history/music history is history. It doesn’t happen in a vacuum. And here’s why I found tressie5’s comment to be deeper than he may have intended.

What actually is going on that makes “vintage” (or vintage-influenced) synths so appealing again? For years few people wanted them, after all.

The easy answer: because in the rush for the latest keyboard du jour, a lot of musicians missed out on these instruments the first time around and are just now discovering them.

And it wasn’t just libido-driven gear lust – the advances were legitimate. For example, the famous Yamaha DX7 was monotimbral, meaning it could only play one sound at a time (unless you retrofitted it with a Grey Matter Response E!, but never mind). That went away with the DX7II, which was 16-part multitimbral – a huge advance at the time.

But a lot of musicians who weren’t even born in the ’80s are also classic synth nuts. Do nostalgia or fantasies about a bygone era have anything to do with it?

Music – the soul of humanity – has played a larger part in our culture than it does for many people today. We all grew up playing instruments. Many kids still do, of course, but music is brain training, it soothes the savage beast, it’s a universal language, and it (like all art) puts our lives in an important perspective.

(Tangent: if you’re not yet aware of it, check out El Sistema if you’re in the mood to feel inspired.)

The music industry. Being musicians, it’s hard not to miss when the music industry was firing on all cylinders. Synths were part of that.

Now, let’s not paint too bleak a picture, because people are also producing great music today!

But until at least the mid-’90s, maybe the turn of the century, everyone bought lots of albums. There was a thirst for new groups and hit songs. Despite the unscrupulous reputation the music industry has earned, it supported a farm system in which the hits financed the misses.

And the misses were very important. That’s how human endeavor works – you need lots of people working on something for it to result in progress. Most scientific experiments “fail,” and most music doesn’t hit. Yet there would be no scientific progress or hits without the failures.

The same applies to synths. It’s highly unlikely that every synth prototype made it to the market, and lots of great instrument companies went under. (That’s why Tom Oberheim’s new company is so heartening.)

The thrill of recording sessions. Before the rise of project studios around the mid-’80s (coinciding with the digital revolution getting into full swing), the commercial studio scene was thriving. Every ad on TV had original music, TV shows were scored with large, live ensembles, to say nothing of song demos and more. “Classic” synths were part of that.

And everyone who’s ever had anything to do with a recording session understands how totally euphoric the experience can be. (Sure project studios are also satisfying, just in different ways.)

So I ask again: is nostalgia/fantasy nostalgia part of why synths that hearken back to days of yore – and not very yore at all – are so popular?

Still not convinced? These are insecure times. Nostalgia/fantasy nostalgia is one of the reactions – and often in less positive ways than gorgeous vintage-inspired synths.

The political situation in America and most of the West feels considerably less stable than at any point in most of our lives. Climate change is starting to get very real. We just lived through a worldwide economic disaster, the Russian invasion of Ukraine is unspeakably horrible… okay, I’ll stop being so depressing; there’s plenty of love and beauty in the world too.

But you do get the point.

That leaves one last question: where is there room for more innovation in future synths?

Whither synthesis? The line between samplers and synthesizers was eviscerated many years ago. That means the oscillating waveforms at the heart of every synth can be anything – including live input. We will never run out of new sounds for that reason alone.

Where there still is room to grow is in how those sounds can be controlled, especially the transitions between sampled ones. That’s one reason MIDI 2.0 should help, because living, breathing instruments aren’t static. And their interactions get far more complicated when you have lots of musicians playing together.

It’s also impossible to predict what innovations synth designers will come up with. Some will be incremental, and it’s safe to say that others will be evolutionary.

In the meantime there are literally thousands of synths – hardware and software – that are incredibly satisfying to play. Philosophy and sociology aside, that’s a major draw.

As always, we welcome your comments on our Facebook page or just directly via this link.

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