Thursday, April 18, 2013

2013 - The Year of the New Analog Synthesizer... Again!

In the 1980s analog synthesizers ruled. Knob ridden portable keyboards with juicy filters and sweeping LFOs where everywhere and the price point for entry kept going down making them more affordable not only to professional or touring musicians but also to young upstarts and folks just coming out of the DIY punk explosion looking to do something on their own.

Classic 70s/80s Analog Monosynths: SCI Pro One, MiniMoog, Arp Odysessy, Roland SH101
In the late 1980s the mighty Yamaha DX7 came out and almost overnight analog fell out of favor for the power of presets and digital stability. Companies like Moog and Arp were always heavy on innovation and technology but not so much business practices and started to find it difficult to compete in the changing world. By 1990 all of the "Big Analog" companies were either gone or producing digital products and had all but abandoned their flagship products in favor of workstations filled with more options, more sounds, and more control.

I'm condensing a lot of history here and there are many resources and documentaries that touch on this phenomena (listed below for further reading) but the short version is the major manufacturer such as Roland, Korg, Yamaha, and even middle size companies found manufacturing analog and knob oriented interfaces were not cost effective when they could sell tens of thousands of digital synths with one slider and menu screens instead. There was an upside to this of course.

As analog fell out of favor prices for used piece plummeted and the next generation of experimenters crawled out of their basements and lofts and scooped up cheap but very interesting drum machines, synthesizers, and "computer controlled" basslines. Techno and industrial were given a huge lift as new artists rediscovered the immediacy and flexibility (as well as *sound*) of the old monosynths and esoteric sequencers, drum machines, and discarded hybrid analog/digital keyboards and samplers. And as these genres and their followers grew up the demand for analog synths with the old knob-per-function interface started to rise. While the largest manufacturers were still busy in their workstation world other companies such as Waldorf, Novation, and even some virtual analog upstarts like Clavia and Access started manufacturing all analog or excellent digitally modeled analog synthesizers.

Future_Retro FR777 and the original Novation BassStation Keyboard

One of the first "new" analog synths I remember was the Novation BassStation. Riding proudly on the knob and real analog sound of past monosynths it offered a two flavor real analog filter combined with two oscillators, an LFO, and envelopes - all in a light plastic portable (even battery powered!) package. Analog junkies couldn't resist and it sold like hotcakes proving there was a market for the right product even if the big boys didn't see it. The original BassStation keyboard was followed up by the BassStation rack unit (a slimline 1 space 19" version with no keyboard perfect for small studios or touring musicians)and finally a super version of the synth named, aptly, the Super BassStation Rack (SBS) which added a noise generator, ring modulation, and more features. The SBS was still a single spaced unit so while it added more knobs and features it got very crowed on that panel. For a few years the BassStation and it's line dominated the "new analog" movement although other small and medium sized manufactures also flourished. I remember the tiny VHS sized synth and sequencer combo put out my a company called Technosaurus in the mid/late 90s and companies like MAM put out tweakable analog rack mount modules.

Hell, the retro craze went so far as for a small Swedish company (updated correction thanks!), Elektron, to create a release a small analog controlled synth based on the Commodore SID chip and the "SidStation" while not analog captured the hearts and fingers of synth nerds everywhere. Soon new companies were springing up even in the US like Future-Retro with their amazing FR777. Simply put the analog monosynth was back on the maps and as rpices started to climb for vintage units (often in various states of disrepair) new analogs and their cousins became a very attractive alternative.
Fast forward a few years and we can see even the large manufacturers seeing the market shift and companies like Korg released the "electribe" drum machine and synth series which, while not analog, recognized what made the original X0X products like the TR808, TB303 so damn popular again. They were simple to use, immediate in their user interface, sounded great, and most of all were FUN. Getting rid of the buried menus and single slider approach "groove boxes" came out in full force with everyone haling their little 16 step sequencer item as the latest and greatest. Some of these were fabulous while others still didn't quite get it but each wave upped the ante for more knobs and real-time manipulation of sound just like the old classics.
The mighty (and fun!) Korg Electribe VA Drum Machine and Synth has knobs and tweaks aplenty.

Then somewhere in the first decade of the year 2000 another change happened. Technology and manufacturing caught up with the quirk and it started to become affordable for large scale analogs to be made again. Of course some companies headed by the giants of the day already were doing this from Bob Moog with Big Briar/Moog Music to Dave Smith (Sequential Circuits founder)with DSI. Boutique grew and by 2010 one of the giants, Korg, released the monotron - their first analog in 25 years. Testing the waters with one toe this was a tiny handheld $50 credit card sized toy perfect for hipster raised on ipods and it sold like hotcakes. Everyone sat up and took notice.

In the past year we've been treated to announcements and delivery of a pile of new analog monosynths. just a few to prove my point:
A pile of new knobs and buttons in 2013!
The Elektron Analog Four
Arturia Minibrute
Korg Monotribe
Moog Minitaur
Doepfer Dark Energy
Waldorf Pulse II
Analogue Solution Leipzig-S

And just announced at Musikmesse 2013 last week:

Meet the New boss, Analog like the old boss...

 Novation BassStation II
Korg Volca series -THREE new tiny X0Xlike boxes including an analog Drum Machine, Bassline, and Lead synth.
Waldorf Rocket
Studio Electronic Boomstar With different filter flavors) 

These don't even take into account the thriving world of new analog modular synth modules and manufacturers. The Euro format pioneered by Doepfer with their A100 series  in the 1990s now has dozens of manufacturers making modules and many synth companies that were in other formats have now jumped on the more affrordable Euro format as well as a few insane boutique manufacturers. There is literally something analog for everyone at every price range from pocket monosynth with keyboard you can play with a pencil to table top or rack units to walls 'o' massive patched monsters.

I've been working on this post for a week and it's not getting any shorter so for now I'll stop but list a few cool resources and documentaries for those interested in more of the history of analog synths and their manufacture or discovery and use in modern electronic music. This is hardly exhaustive but everything here is a lot of fun to check out and I'm guessing if you're reading this you might be geek enough to appreciate more :)

Tweak on and on and on...

Cool books dealing with analog synths, founders, etc:

- Analog Days: The Invention and Impact of the Moog Synthesizer
- The San Francisco Tape Music Center: 1960s Counterculture and the Avant-Garde
- Theremin: ETHER MUSIC AND ESPIONAGE (Music in American Life)
 - Vintage Synthesizers: Pioneering Designers, Groundbreaking Instruments, Collecting Tips, Mutants of Technology
- Keyfax The Omnibus Edition
- Generation Ecstasy: Into the World of Techno and Rave Culture
- Keyboard Presents Synth Gods
- Electro Shock!

And for those visually oriented some video/documentaries:

- Moog (2005)
- Synth Britannia (BBC TV Series)
- PBS miniseries WGBH Rock & Roll - Episode: "The Perfect Beat"
 - Better Living Through Circuitry
- Modulations: Cinema for the Ear (1998)
- Kraftwerk And The Electronic Revolution (2008)
- Scratch (2002) (Brilliant Documentary on DJing and it's origins, etc)
- Theremin - An Electronic Odyssey

And finally soon to be released a doumentary on modular Synthesizers and the freaks who love them.
(watch this space for more info when it's out):

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Guitar/ Not Guitar... and No One Played Synthesizer...

I have always been obsessed with sound and making unusual noises using whatever tools I could find. Long before I owned a synthesizer my first introduction to "synthesis" was via stomp  box effects, especially delays. Those little colored stomp boxes on the floor in front of guitarists onstage that would make their instrument sounds like jet airplanes taking off (flangers),  doubled parts (choruses and pitch shifters), or perhaps my favorite, multi-part harmonies and spaced out swirling notes (delays).

All of this culminated years later when I did a series of shows and an album appropriated titled "Guitar/Not Guitar) where the idea was to pick up what looked like a conventional six string guitar on stage and have the sound the audience heard be anything but a traditional six strong guitar.  I used effects, a guitar synth, loopers, and even a midi guitar for parts of the set. A simple example of "guitar/not guitar" can be found here where I play Roland GR300 guitar synth into a delay and build the loop in real time. This was done in one take with no overdubs

But before I get to ahead of myself my exposure to doing this started years before I even knew what a guitar or delay was. As a good American teenager I listened to what is now considered "classic rock" radio stations and friend's record collections, etc and it was there I first heard the guitar pyrotechnics of Brian May from the band Queen.  Bloated AOR radio rock bands in a synth blog? you might ask? Well, yes there is a direct connection, please stay with me!

Casual fans might not be aware but Queen's first six albums (the initial ones with all their big rock hits) all had extensive studio wizardry with effects DIY amps, effects, innovative overdubbing, etc. In other words sound sculpting at it's most creative and finest. They were so proud of the work they put in they didn't want anyone to confuse the huge string and orchestral arrangements (done entirely on guitar) that they brazenly put the words "No One Played Synthesizer" on the credits of each of these records. Like their music or not, Brian May was always a true sound pioneer modifying his amps and literally building his main guitar from scratch to get it's wiring to do exactly what he wanted. He also used a series of delays to achieve his trademark sound and developed a way to reproduce his studio work live in real time on a single guitar. In this video he demonstrates one technique he uses combining two short delays one after another to make multiple notes play at once:


Seems simple enough (all the masters make difficult things seem simple) but with a little experimentation and practice you can try this at home with similar results. Now again, perhaps Radio Ga-Ga isn't everyone's cup of English tea (personally I liked their earlier "non synth" albums) but from a pure sound excursion level you can't argue with the technique and passionate drive to create new sounds. May's use of muted rhythm playing, echo, volume swells and more seeped into my teenage synthesist's brain and when combined with the other tools and artists I stumbled across better known for their guitar sound work (Robert Fripp, Adrian Belew, etc) I was off and running in my journey to explore and create.

As a coda to this post I'll add that there is a classic lost video of an Extremely young Adrian Belew giving a class on "How to Play Electronic Guitar". In the 80s instructional VHS tapes were all the rage and most taught budding fanboys how to shred like their latest metal hero or plays the blues. Someone thought it was a good idea to get a true wizard of bizarre noises to do an instructional video showing how he made his guitar sound like Seagulls, Rhinos, Spaceships, and more.

I suppose outside of the more subtle influences if there ever was a genesis of Guitar/Not Guitar Belew's VHS tape would be it. I've always loved the title was ELECTRONIC guitar not Electric guitar. Truth in advertising folks.

Strum and pick on!