Are modern workstations fit to be called 'synthesizers'?
Recently, in these columns, contributors have bemoaned the decline of the synthesizer industry, pointing to the constant repackaging of the Roland D50 and Korg M1 sample-based concept, to the point where reviewers seem to have lost their enthusiasm for the job.
Where have things gone wrong? Well, perhaps the word 'synthesizer' is inappropriate for the modern-day workstation/sampler. Analogue purists might argue that the DX7, sweeping aside the so-called classics from Oberheim, Sequential Circuits and Moog, to name a few, brought too much realism to the world of synthesis. Now you could have superb electric piano tones at the press of a membrane, instead of spending weeks trying to coax an imitative sound from VCOs and filters. At best, analogue polysynths were used for big, lush pad sounds, pseudo-choirs and brass emulations, but they still made you feel you were standing in front of a synthesizer.
The point of all this is not to fire up the tired debate of knobs and switches versus increment wheels and menus, but to make the case that perhaps polyphony was the beginning of the end for synthesizers. Because once you could play chords on them, you were programming and playing them like instruments that exist in the real world.
Surely most hi-tech musicians, when first hearing what they might term a synthesizer, did not go rushing out to their local music shop because they heard preset A1 (yet another grand-piano sample) on a workstation. No, it was most probably some big, fat, resonant electronic sound — a soaring lead line, a thundering bass, or a sound effect not of this world. In other words, a monophonic sound not aiming for realism. This is not to say that a synthesizer should be incapable of realism: you only have to listen to past masters such as Tomita and Wendy Carlos to hear stunning examples of instruments that many a modern-day sampler or synthesizer would be proud of.
No doubt certain readers will think I am ranting on about 'digital versus analogue'. As it happens, I'm not — and anyway, at least part of that argument was answered when manufacturers started to build virtual analogue synths, finally having realised that musicians could not fall in love with a black MIDI expander, complete with expressionless LCD. Hats off to Roland for the JD800 and Clavia for the Nord Lead — steps in the right direction for the knob-centred interface that synthesists are at home with.
Now that everything has come full circle and specialist manufacturers are building affordable modular equipment, of the kind that was once the domain of university music labs and the wealthy few, perhaps we can discover the roots and real meaning of a synthesizer. They do not have to be hooked up to MIDI controllers (although MIDI certainly opens up new horizons), nor shackled to CV and Gate or analogue sequencers — although all are perfectly acceptable. Let's have these exciting, other-worldly, vibrant electronic textures manipulated by ribbon controllers, pitch to voltage, envelope followers and theremins.
The latest instrument from manufacturers such as Korg, Roland or Yamaha will always be a major part of the setup of many gigging musicians and studio composers, but whether the label 'synthesizer' fits them any more is questionable. With a handful of patch cords and a glittering cape, a fresh musical landscape is waiting to be rediscovered.
In 1972, at the tender age of 20, Bob Williams became Coventry's first synth owner, when he bought an EMS VCS3. The purchase ignited an enduring passion for synths and spawned a collection that eventually included large modular synths from many notable manufacturers. In the early '90s, Bob joined their ranks, when he teamed up with synth designer Steve Gay to found Analogue Systems. The company's RS Integrator modular system continues to expand.