You are here


Sounding Off
Published February 1997

Alan Fish‑Barnes asks "What's in a name?" and concludes: "Quite a lot, actually..."

SX‑WSA1R, N364, 01/W FD, VFX‑SD2, K2500... If you're new to SOS and the world of hi‑tech music‑making, you'd be forgiven for wondering what this list of strange algebraic terms is doing on the pages of a magazine for musicians. More seasoned readers should be aware that this rather mathematical expression would be sufficient to describe a respectable collection of synths from recent years, even if they probably wouldn't be able to remember the correct positions of all the dashes and slashes if pushed. Yes, these are all synth names, and there are plenty more where they came from.

What do they evoke for you? Do they make you think of the spotlit centre‑stage at a packed‑out venue? The electric atmosphere of a pro studio in the white heat of creation? The hopes and dreams of the bedroom musician expressing his or her art through the sublime sounds issuing from their instrument?

Or do they rather put you in mind of the model number emblazoned on the side of your microwave oven or the back of your TV? The top‑secret designation for the latest CIA spy plane? A page torn out of a cryptographer's handbook?

Any reader older than about 35 should be able to remember a time when it was possible to own an entire multi‑synth setup without having to remember a single arcane string of numerals. Instead of having a list of numbers disposed all over your three‑tier A‑frame, it could be graced by the likes of Jupiters, Odysseys, Tridents, Prophets and Alpha Junos — names which are a pleasure to say and hear, drawn from mythology and legends, with truly cosmic connotations. In 50 years, which would you remember best — the names or the numbers?

Recall the cheeky Rogue (named by Bob Moog so that people might get a clue about how to pronounce his unusual name — the two should rhyme). Remember the quirky Wasp monosynth, bravely named by British designers daring you to compare the sound of the two. What about its siblings, the Gnat and the Spider (the latter a simple analogue sequencer)? And let's not forget the unsurpassably cutely‑named Octave Kat and Kitten, the grandly ambitious Moog Liberation, the colourfully monikered Rhodes Chroma, the aggressively hip ARP Axxe, or Korg's playfully designated Mono/Poly. It wasn't only synths which had names to conjure with: how about spicing up your sound with a Memory Man or an Electric Mistress (an early delay and a flanger pedal respectively!)? Today's number‑laden labels keep us firmly earth‑bound. They don't offer us any expectations beyond the spec sheet, unlike the magical names of old.

Before you all write in to point this out, it's true that synth manufacturers have always used numbers to designate their instruments, but at least they were often stylish (TR909, MC202, MS20) or instantly recalled their maker: everyone used to know that the prefix 'CS' meant a Yamaha synth, just as 'TR' meant a Roland drum machine. Now manufacturers are even running out of different alphanumeric designations: a few years ago an R8 was released simultaneously by two manufacturers — one a multitrack and one a drum machine — and a current DAT machine shares its name with a late '80s‑vintage synth. A certain leading‑edge synth rejoices in the same name as a tiny kiddy‑keyboard released way back in 1981. Well, they do say we should recycle!

No doubt there are good reasons for the decline of the proper name: now that electronic music is a global business, names have to travel and work in all languages: what better than alphanumeric tags in this situation? And manufacturers probably don't have the manpower to devote someone to first inventing a witty or evocative name for each new product, then doing the necessary research to ensure that it can be used. Look at how much aggravation goes into naming a single new washing powder or hair conditioner: with their rapid development cycles and increasing number of products, can manufacturers really be expected to add to their costs by spending a disproportionate amount of time and effort on a name? Maybe not.

A few bright exceptions stand out at the moment: Korg's Prophecy and Trinity recall the majesty of the old days, Emu's Orbit synth and Launch Pad MIDI controller take the musician back into space with the Jupiter, and Quasimidi's Raven, Technox, Cyber 6 and forthcoming Rave‑O‑Lution leave you in no doubt as to what to expect from your new synth. And the tradition of inventive naming persists in software, with names like Cubase, Logic, Cakewalk, Performer, Alchemy, and Vision, amongst others. Let's see this healthy trend continue — they are not numbers: they are free instruments!