The synthesizer Evolution Part 1

The Synthesizer, in todays vernacular, is simply that thing that still doesn’t belong to any ‘proper’ family, funnelled into a slot where budding composers reach for a free or relatively cheap VST emulation. It has carried scars of many debates and conflicts on its first arrival, which in itself predates most people’s preconceptions by at least a 100 years, and survives from one generation into the next, from sugary modern pop to experimental music concrete.

It has morphed many times over from the 200 ton steam powered contraption of 1897 by Thaddeus Cahill, Leon Theremin’s body snatchers inducing Theremin or ‘Etherphone’, Robert Moog’s MiniMoog and a deluge before, during and since.

But the resounding and continual shirking from the establishment, would still happily see all said contraptions as blueprints at best, and ideas to be mocked over a large brandy, a waxed moustache with a firm finger wag and a shaking of one’s head.

They are the science that crept into music form. For many decades in some manner, whether it was the usage in horror, sci-fi and avant garde, the presence of the unnatural new comer wasn’t (and to a degree, still isn’t) welcome. I have heard some real classic tales of the uproar at the usage of a synth in film score, musician unions both this side and stateside up in arms over its infringement into the traditional landscape, effectively stealing good jobs with its bleeps and thips and brash impersonations of established classical instruments.

It is very much ‘The littlest Hobo’ of instruments looking longingly for a family heritage, a warm studio to nestle in and some acceptance. Per chance even an old dog basket to sidle up into.

The very first usage of the word synthesizer, albeit in a passing reference, was made by Edouard Coupleux and Joseph Givelet in order to maybe best describe those vacuum tube oscillators housed in what would outwardly appear as an industrial loom to the casual passer by, and quite possibly sound as appealing.

Then by 1956 the term was officially pushed to accompany the RCA EMS with its 12 tuning forks ‘electro magnetically stimulated’ and again, as with the Coupleux Givelet, utilising punch paper roll to play or perform. Oh, how the cold winter nights must have flown by!

The synthesizer has endured the sideshow circus freak allocation for nearly its entire linespan. Even whilst in more flourishing times where every studio owned a DX7, D50 or Korg M1, and perhaps some classic polysynth, they have lacked the love and adoration of the masses. Only in the most accepted manner possible, can they be allowed to be rock and roll,┬ábut just not for too long….let’s always keep them in a place of acceptable context. It has always been well received when pushed as niche, played by a niche band, in a very niche genre. Or an occasional allowance made for special ‘one offs’ like the opening to ‘Won’t get fooled again’ by the WHO, programmed on a ARP2500 by the guitarist….

But the synthesizer has indeed a very long history and heritage and most certainly has (as you can tell from my cack handed history lesson above), a legitimate family tree and genus.

What I personally loved at my first exposure to synthesizer music was the complete other worldly detachment, which I found just enveloped my bourgeoning imagination as a pre teen. I was never a huge fan of classical instrument emulation, and only in the advent of sampling technology do we now completely accept sampling as a friendly companion, often completely dismissing that tree branch of heritage too.

But use its merry wares we do, in abandon. Through gritted teeth when it suits to do so….

The synth in its rarest, honest form, is a crude and flat sounding annoyance (that’s a little bit of the 1920’s me slipping through there!), but honestly, yes, it can sound dead, flat as a pancake and lacking any nourishment at all. But then placing that statement into context more broadly, all musical instruments have the capacity to sound like military warfare until you can coax some human interaction and life from them.

I think this is still where the divide lies. A performer is somehow restricted to express, despite velocity, aftertouch, wind controllers, pedals, real time switches, pots and sliders, ribbon controllers, pads, violently kicking and banging on them in true Emerson style, with unlimited modulation routing possibilities, unlimited ways to layer, tweak and create. But it’s not a traditional schooled instrument is it?

So why do so many of us still undervalue them? Why still the bum deal?

I do still think it’s a combination of the emulation issue, the mass market creation of a bazillion of them covering pre school kids, wanna be DJ EDM producers and even ‘your Nan’, with her two tier home organ and warm renditions (nay, private concerts!) of war time classics.

Does the synth lack class in any form because of its mass appeal? Surely that in itself is a paradox. How can something so very popular and accessible become so unpopular and derisible? Has the synth endured a reoccurring Bieber syndrome?
Should we all still be wearing lab technician coats with bakelite glasses and a top pocket full of ball point pens? It’s not my current wardrobe, I’m glad to say!

In 1983, Yamaha released the DX7. A synth that went on to sell in a record numbers, surviving several revisions in its product line till 1989. By that time, the writing was on the wall for the FM based synth, as a new breed of s&s (sample and synth) machines breathed realism and a little more simplicity into the fold. The DX, as distinctive as it was and still is, was famously horrible to program. It was also comparably colder and starker a sound than the previous army of analog machines heard on 100’s of records and numerous film scores. Its very new sound was to be heard on practically every album that year and the following years in its 80’s heyday.

The DX though, for all its momentary and long forgotten glory, was an important synth. In fact its legacy absolutely lives on, and never died out after the DX line was halted. It went on to see better days in the SY line coupled with the then warmly embraced s&s synthesis meld. Even today it lives again in the Reface family launched a year or so ago at NAMM to a warm reception.

Sometime into the early 90’s, we really did go full on digital. Roland, who had given us some truly music shaping analog tools for many years with possibly the most solid and untouchably revered line of releases, had led the way along with Korg, Ensoniq, and Kawai to deliver greater realism, packaged more slickly and with this the boom period for module based rack synths, but at the great cost of accessible programming.

This was a wrong that wasn’t fully righted, despite the JD800 and a few moments where it looked like we had that element in our sights. It was brief and it didn’t happen. Through most of the 90’s, what we see as classic analog synths, were nothing more than fart producing boxes and fiddly for their lack of the new midi protocol.
They seemed flat again, antiquated and well, old. They sounded like public information school music or a small pile of old trousers at the back of your loft in a torn up bin bag.

Yes, that unloved. But the lucky unswayed few who were loyal and remained adorned in the odd tank top, coated with Lynx Musk, they kept the flag flying and promptly scooped up things like the Jupiter 8 for 300 quid. I do remember an offer like that many years ago for around 600 pounds I think it was. Then you look at the latest resurgence for all things analog, a quick eBay check and its around 7500 for a Jupiter 8 complete with scratches and knocks. I was more a ‘Lynx Africa’ guy so that speaks volumes for my decisions around 1994.

Long before we had to tolerate the EDM tag, we actually had all manner of electronic music. Whether you could actually dance to it or not is kinda dependent on stages of drug usage, consumption of alcohol or to be fair, too much sugar on a good day.

But a lineage and well groomed history of electro music we certainly did have.
From Stockhausen to Shultz, Kraftwerk to Depeche Mode, Vangelis, Jean Michel Jarre, Tangerine Dream, Yellow Magic Orchestra, Yello, OMD, Isao Tomita, Wendy Carlos, Devo, Gary Numan – the list is legion. Electronic music and synthesizers have shaped and tweaked the direction of modern music in such a way that there is no going back. Love or hate them, use them on a Macbook, or devote a corner of the studio to marriage splitting CS80’s and JP8’s, the influence, the symbiotic blend into so many genres you hear in all mediums is here to stay.

To ever suggest 4 feet of plastic and knobs has no big significance or impact on musical culture, its language, its bare bones, is pure ignorance.

The seaboard range of performance keyboards by ROLI, is testament to the constant pursuit of expression and I think no less so for its ability to connect players with synths. I see this as its overall big plus. Not that you cannot coax completely perfect acoustic like impersonations of acoustic guitar playing, why on earth would you want to do that anyway outside of ‘ooh that was cool’. But I don’t hear “ooh that was cool’ on a film score if I can’t see your ROLI seaboard can I?

I believe performer instruments like this are crucial to ringing out more and expression and performance to synths and samplers. In fact all the ways we control synths now are really just harking back to the beginning of synths where there were no agreed methods of playing one anyway. It was totally a unique thing at the time.
The various incarnations, long before the east coast ‘keys and synth’ pairing, these machines were activated rather than traditionally played.
Impulses were sequenced and abused. Parts warmed up to become tuning stable and new and weird modules were crudely hand built in basements

That last sentence actually echoes where we are now. I’m so thankful for it. The hands on invention, the personal industry. All the dozens of guys working in their lofts, sheds, basements forging ahead with the booming modular market. Moog and Buchla would be sitting there over a coffee nodding with approval.
For such a musical leper as the synth is, it came full on circle and was finally given a big warm hug from very nearly every one. I’m pretty sure the folk music sector has remained steadfast though.

It’s not the first time I have rambled aimlessly with a synth fueled blog and I’m pretty sure it won’t be my last. I do have a lot to say on the matter, on the ‘thing’ that divides the room so often but can just as often just bring all the shit together in the mix.
I do have an unhealthy bias but for some, it was watching their dad play acoustic guitar badly as a kid, for others it might be sneaking out to watch a new band that was just rehearsing 3 weeks prior in their parents garage that got them into music and their path.
For me it was borrowing my brothers LP’s and tuning the little radio I borrowed to weird and wonderful stations, giving me exposure to a more exotic blend of aural income at such a young age. I’m not ashamed to say it, but Human League, Eurythmics, Duran Duran, they all meant so much to my young ears ‘because ‘ they didn’t sound like my brother’s other records. Or my friend’s, for that matter.

Synth music was almost some kind of revolution on its own, albeit not remotely as antagonistic and aggressive as punk. I think synth pop helped on a good day, and set it all back a few years on a bad one, whereas a naff rock song was always just a naff rock song.
Until another Sunday, I shall leave you either as a lover, hater or always undecided about the world of knobs and sliders!
Until part 2