The return of the Prodigal Analogue Synth?
The recent re-issue of the Korg MS20-mini synthesizer last year brought back a flood of nostalgia in me; the original 1970s model was my first serious synthesizer, bought in a music shop in Southend-on-sea back in 1986, 5 years after being discontinued. I know what sounds can be got out of its semi-modular architecture. This will be an addition to my studio at some point, at least for nostalgia, and for the fact that its at least now updated with MIDI in.
But this is neither the first nor the last of synthesizer re-issues planned, KORG have also announced they intend to do a re-issue of the ARP Odyssey (though personally I would prefer a reissue of the classic ARP2600 but that just my preferences) and the first of the big-reissues, the updated MiniMoog, now as the Moog Voyager, is still selling strongly, and well liked, despite the £2000 price tag, (though they were always expensive in UK, not unlike Gibson guitars) and its still monophonic. On the analogue polyphonic front Dave Smith Instruments have re-issued the Prophet 5, another classic synth from the analogue era.
So what is going on? In the 1980s/1990s there was a terrific push towards both sampling and FM/Phase distortion synthesis, of which I was many who were excited by these prospects, especially as we had come to find analogue subtractive synthesis sounding rather plastic and had resorted to using conventional instruments to add some spectral depth to the sounds. However after the DX series from Yamaha, manufacturers started developing instruments aimed at emulating existing instruments, which wasn’t any interest to me at the time (though I’ve long since realised that taking these sounds out of context, adding effects and generally treating the unit as a synth and not a pretend conventional instrument gets some interesting sounds) and in general many of us found the new instruments were not really of much interest. Then in the 1990s the rave Music scene changed all that; discarded ticky-tacky drum machines like the Roland TR 808 suddenly were snapped up and became “vintage” almost overnight, and the Moogs, Including the big modular units became very coveted. Then some new analogue gear became available on the market, then by the years 2002-3 softsynths became usable in real time as computers got over the 1GHz processor speed, and professional quality sound cards became available. Softsynths such as Native Instruments FM8 greatly expanded and improved upon the DX range of FM synthesizers, allowing the user to program algorithms from scratch, and applications like Reaktor 5 and Max/MSP allowed the user not only to construct their own soft synthesizer from the ground up but also just about anything else; sequencers, algorithmic compositions etc.
So with the plethora of gear available, some of it free and open source, why are analogue synths making a comeback? Part of that comes with the accessibility of the sounds, there are no menus, no presets, all the parameters appear in the form of a knob, switch or slider and are immediately accessible, in real time, as you play the synth, and this does offer a lot of fun and overall playability. Another reason is the sound- bear in mind analogue synths can only really do subtractive synthesis (unless you’ve got a really large modular set up) however they do that sound particularly well, and of course, whilst making that sound, taking up zero CPU on the DAW! As with all art forms, a certain amount of iconography comes into play; I strongly suspect the many photos of well known pioneers in vintage synthesizer studios with tons of knobs and sliders appeal to some, there are some private studios with huge amounts of collected gear on the internet, just google “synthesizer studio”.
So leaving aside knob and fader fetishism and the “classic analogue synthesizer sound” what else is there? Well for me the main part is acceptance that no one method of synthesis replaces another- they’re different and as new techniques appear, rather than replacing the old, the orchestra just gets bigger and in the same way one would write and arrange for the instruments in a conventional orchestra one can write electroacoustic/electronic music by arranging for suitable synthesis technique and as such the equipment selected as the most expedient for that technique. So instead of a straight line going from voltage control analogue synths to FMsynthesis to Phase distortion to digital modelling we really have a tree with each of these methods as branches with appropriate methods of realisation, and the original generative techniques of post WWII at the base.
Of course the filthy word “budget” comes into this in so far that for many, imitative techniques such as softsynths are a much more realistic option than forking out for something in hardware, esp if the music demands a complex, modular-like set up. There are also a good many forums who have ongoing threads of software synths vs. hardware synths, with lots of spiky, passionate opinions on both sides of the debate, and as computers have got a lot more powerful and affordable in recent years, so the quality of softsynths has duly risen, which leaves both camps at point of really only having personal preferences, and the fact that a good few prefer the real thing leads us back to the above paragraph.
On a closing note, those who are into analogue synths often get tangled up with the thought that “analogue was the original method” forget the fact that one of the first synthesizers was in fact a soft synthesizer written by Max Matthews (Max/MSP is partially named after him) running on an RCA computer in the Bell labs, and to tease the analogue modular crowd there is a direct correlation between analogue modular synthesis and the analogue computers of that period 1960s-1970s. Analogue computers are mathematical calculating machines whereby values are calculated by replicating the equation in electronic circuitry and patched together in the same way as a modular synth. A signal is applied to the patch and the results measured on an oscilloscope. The fundamental difference with a modular synth is an audio signal is generated at the far end and speakers attached!