Monday, January 28, 2013

Welcome Back Analog (and then some!)

Synthesizer enthusiasts and musicians in general tend to love gear. Guitarists are notorious for lusting after a specific year/make/model of a Gibson Les Paul, Fender Telecaster, or even some more esoteric out of production cheap Japanese pawn shop special that captured their heart or imagination years ago. We tend to collect gear like baseball card enthusiasts collect their favorite teams or an antique dealer collects tea cups.  Part of this is for the different features, interface, or  sounds a particular instrument makes but if we're honest a lot has to do with the phenomena of simply wanting to try *that* or the thrill finding some rare piece has. There's even a tongue-in-cheek term for this illness, Gear Acquisition Syndrome (or G.A.S.  for short in internet speak) and it's only half in jest someone (usually a significant other or friend who doesn't understand the draw of a 1981 Ibanez Tube screamer with the original JS chip) throws their hands in the air and comments while rolling their eyes.  Yep, he's got G.A.S.

Online forums and mailing lists dedicated to esoteric analog and other synthesizers (read GEEKS) are ripe with decade old arguments of which synth is "better", why "X" is overpriced, how someone should just reissue a "holy grail" type long lost piece and why/how that will never be done, or was done, or was done but it wasn't quite *right* and the original is better, etc etc etc. Thank you Internet.

If  we were to push aside many of the minor conversations revolving around pure taste and opinion I believe  most of the complaints by gearheads come down to "I want one and I can't find it" or "it's so rare/vintage if I do find one I can't afford it."When you have G.A.S. common sense doesn't always drive your decisions and thus we get outrageous price tags on instruments only which a few years earlier were selling for 1/10th this week's cost.

It's ultra rare a company recognizes the small but vocal minority who want their vintage products. In many cases the synth went out of production for very good reasons with some being poor sales, it was too difficult/expense to mass build any more, or even it was a complete commercial failure upon it's release and only found new life in a new context years later.

I'm happy to report this week at NAMM (the National Association of Music Merchants) three old, long out of production products are being re-introduced to the general public. What many gearheads once only dreamed of is become a reality.  Three completely different manufacturers are selling  three classic, amazing, and highly sought after synthesizers for the first time in decades and all are being made available again in close to original specs. Each was lovingly and painstakingly (perhaps even fetishistically) reproduced by teams paying special attention to what made the original special and they have spent time and money over and above to "get it right". None of these are a quick and dirty clones or cash ins on hype.

Of course there will always be some who criticize and aren't satisfied but in looking at the initial reports of these items I'd say this is a DAMN fine time to play synthesizer and prices for NEW versions are infinitely more affordable than buying an ornery and perhaps delicate original which is also a huge plus.

Let's meet some of the class of 2013, all of who actually graduated a far back as the early 1970s shall we?

1. Korg MS20 -

The Korg MS20 is an odd duck in older analog monosynths. Moog had their buttery bass MiniMoog which even the most casual synth nerd (and most guitarists) knew about. Arp had the Odyssey, Sequential Circuits had the Pro One and all of these were sold by the boat load as lead, bass, sound effects instruments. But Korg went a little left of center and came out with the semi patchable, dual screeching filter MS20. Compared to the other synths of it's time it was... well, Weird.

Perhaps it's precisely it's unique design and sound that helped make it a favorite of  alternative bands from industrial to indie rock. The MS20 was never the good looking kid in the class but it's attitude won creative folks over from Skinny Puppy to  Richard James (Aphex Twin) to Portishead.  Korg has amazingly brought back this synth in all it's analog glory for a fraction of the price vintage ones go for. They're proud of this legacy and in an honorable Japanese tradition even rolled out the original designers for input in it's resurrection.

What does it sound like? Well it can be smooth or fluid but it's forte is processing external sounds and it's insane dueling resonant screeching filters. For a good example of it's sheer power check out my 1990s track "Night Nurse" where it builds menacingly  into a crescendo of sweeping freaknoise. Thank you Korg!

2. Cyclone  TT-303 Bass Bot

The TB303 "Computer Controlled Bassline" was an absolute failure by Roland Corporation standards upon it's release. It was supposed to substitute for a live bass player for one man bands and provide realistic low end accompaniment for lounge acts. It's infuriating programming and nontraditional sound made it more like a space age silver bleep box than a heavy four string guitar player. Which, as it turns out, is exactly what it became when poor techno musicians began scooping them up in pawn shops for pennies back in the 1980s. These re-appropriating  DJs soon figured out the quirks that made it fail as a bass guitar made it ideal for a new type of music that relied on repetitive beats, squelchy leads and basslines, and outrageous swirls of filtered and accented pulses that made your head spin. ACID was born and while some it it went the polite Acid House route, plenty of raw, rubbery, and downright dirty and fast recordings were made. The 303 made hardcore Acid possible and it became the DIY Punk of the techno world with all the good and bad that entails.

Over the years few electronic instruments have been as revered, hated, over used, and perfectly well adapted as the TB303. Used prices soared and literally dozens of clones were made over the next few decades. One could spend months researching and discussing the various good and bad points of all this but bottom line, the TB303 has a rabid following and without exception all of the various third party versions were *different* moving the quirks of it's sequencer, filter, or design around with "improvements" which left purists wanting. After a few years in the making it seems a true clone (down to the design, buttons, programming, and knobs) is emerging. The Cyclone TT-303 is a thrid party instrument (not a Roland product in any way) which has garnered praise from 303 experts around the world. Is it the new TB303? Regardless of where you come down on that decision it's amazing to see such a labor of love working to make this iconic instrument available again in all of it's glory.

For extra credit here's an amusing short documentary detailing the fall and rise of the invincible 303:

3. Buchla Music Easel -

Perhaps the most astonishing "reissue" product is the one no one ever thought would happen. Actually no one ever thought anyone would WANT it to happen! The Buchla music easel is a portable collection of  analog synthesizer modules with a touch control key like interface that boldly went where no instrument when before. While Robert Moog was designing instruments for traditional musicians Buchla went so left of center he created a Non-instrument instrument for sound freaks and true pioneers with input from forward thinkers like Morton Subotnick. Apparently only 30 or so were ever made and over the years it's legend has grown to mythic proportions with some prices creeping up over $20,000 if and when one ever showed up on the market.

Buchla  re-emerged in the 2000s with a new line of equally intense boutique synthesizer modules and took his legacy into the 21st century with the 200e system featuring unique oscillators, sequencers, and many pieces that simply defied categorization (his "filter module the 291e can also be a sequencer, oscillator, and amplifier for example). With the 200e and his unique interactive and spatial midi controllers like Thunder and Lightening  Buchla moved on and on with each new piece surprising designers, academics,and hardcore modular freaks at every turn.

So it was shocking in all these circles this week when the newly formed Buchla Electronic Music Instruments (BEMI) announced a full scale reissue of the original "Music Box" complete with touch pressurized keypad, original programming cards (solder your own resistors to make your patch kids!), and faithful reproduction of all of the components. For synth nerds the Music Easel is the Holy Grail and the rarest of the rare. Add to that it was just so damn esoteric and non commercial it's new life would seem a bit of a puzzle. But times (and tastes) have changed and, again, it's a good time to enjoy odd sounds.

So now, apparently, the Music Easel  will be available not only again but truly - for the general public - for the first time in mass production. Price is not cheap as it's rumored to be around $4000 plus extra for the new interface add ons (Blue tooth and Ipad interfaces will apparently be made available - for a 50 year old synthesizer!!!).

Still amazingly BEMI seems poised to be moving forward even as they look to the past. The man has done it again.

Here's  the obligatory tacky interview and a description of the 2013 Music Easel:

So there you have it. Three entirely different companies in different countries with different structures making odd instruments that were so ahead of their time it's taken over 40 years for some of them to be in demand.  Who knows what the future will hold for these designs (or their offspring)? Perhaps this signals a renewed interest in hardware instruments VS VSTs and Apps? Maybe the tactile user interface and features that have stood the test of time will once again dominate the electronic music world (or at least happily co-exist in it)?

But such discussions will be around and are for another day.  This week, let's simply enjoy the bounty that these new classics offer and all together... Bleep On!

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