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Paul Nagle: When Synths Were Real Instruments

Sounding Off By Paul Nagle
Published February 1996

Time was when synths weren't all weedy presets and wheyfaced copies of real instruments. Regular SOS contributor Paul Nagle is living off his memories...

You remember the kind of gig: a darkened stage, dry ice machine, hairy bloke in a cape, arms flailing in every direction, playing solos such as could only be achieved with a synthesizer. The Minimoog and its contemporaries gave access to a wealth of expressive, distinctive electronic sounds and required the player to know his instrument intimately. These were the days when your performance in a band was judged by how quickly you could switch from 'Toccata & Fugue' to a swirly, flutey solo. Remember that in those days, programmability was rare and wondrous.

Then we got affordable polysynths and, in my opinion, never really got our heads round them. I mean, up until then we had played a few chords on organs or string synths, but mainly we were having a ball with our three‑octave Rolands or Moogs, and looking cool, leaning into those pitch benders or banging up the resonance. Imagine our shock when all of a sudden it was announced that synthesizers were to be standardised at five octaves, and our beloved knobs fell like autumn leaves. I'm sure I wasn't the only one to be baffled by the sudden vast expanse of notes in the vicinity of my left hand; I felt an overwhelming urge to become a pianist overnight. After all, it wouldn't have been right to leave all those nice plastic keys untouched. People would have talked.

The dawn of MIDI saw Liquid Crystal Displays, alpha dials and data entry sliders, yet in some respects we seem to have ended up with less rather than more. True, our synths have become so complex that nobody expects to re‑program them on the fly, but few people now have any desire or interest to program them at all. For end results count above all, don't they? Well, for a producer or engineer, I can understand this, but a musician? I wouldn't expect a violinist to be able to glue together his or her instrument, but it is inconceivable that they would not attempt to master every aspect of performance and technique. After all, the wider your vocabulary, the more you can say. Of course I understand that a synth with great factory sounds will sell well, but surely there must be more to it than that — unless we are deliberately building in obsolescence? I find myself sighing inwardly each time I hear the inevitable question, "what's its piano like?" or, "how many bits has it got?". The move towards realistic sounds was exciting for everyone, but somewhere along the line, we have ceased to strive for that bond which once existed between player and synth. Now that the capes have been replaced by baseball caps, and banks of keyboards by racks of modules, maybe it's time to think again about the role of the synthesizer as an instrument, and not merely a sound production tool.

With most of the important functions reduced to pages behind an impassive LCD, a whole generation of previously happy twiddlers have had to adapt to the minimum of performance controls, and that long keyboard. The only alternative was to stick to playing sounds that nobody wanted to hear anymore, or so it seemed. And how depressing it was to be shown up by a succession of spotty youths with six months' piano lessons under their belts who could make your £1000 polysynth sound better than you ever could. Oh, how I longed to hand the little buggers an ARP Odyssey or a Sequential Pro One, and wipe the smiles off their faces! Or how about a Korg MS20 and a bunch of patch cords?

By filling our synthesizers with pianos and saxophones, have we actually lost their real identity? Sure, there's a place for all this kind of stuff, but I suggest that the synth could have been a different kind of instrument altogether and might have been the catalyst for a new kind of musician. I'm not talking about a computer operator type who is more interested in when to trigger a sample, or who inputs melodies in step time. I mean someone who can perform in ways we've not seen yet — unhandicapped by how many keys they can press on their master keyboard, and for whom a single note might be manipulated musically, using a whole variety of controls that we've not even imagined.

I don't know who it was that said it set synths back years by putting keyboards on them [It was Ian Craig Marsh of the Human League MkI actually — Smartarse Ed], but it is a view with which I can sympathise to some extent. I hope instruments like the Korg Prophecy with its small keyboard, log controllers and knobs are only the first step in recovering some of the ground lost in recent years to the marvels of PCM playback. Great though this instrument is, I'd happily trim off the virtual flutes, brass and guitars in favour of even more performance controls. Maybe a couple of joysticks, some sliders, a proportional pitch controller (some old ARP synths had these — they were rubber pads that generated vibrato when you pushed). Hell, why not a built‑in laser harp, MIDI glove and a velocity‑sensitive foot pedal that you could stomp on? Sadly, such physical things are relatively expensive. And this isn't the whole story. Why, for example, don't more synths have polyphonic aftertouch? Is it purely down to cost, or is it also because of the additional MIDI data that would be generated, effectively pouring syrup into all those poor computers? I'm sure that with some new ideas on the control front, the synthesizer can rekindle the spirit of the Yamaha CS80, the Minimoog or the great modular systems.

I don't want to spend my time with a collection of antique synths that insist on going out of tune in the middle of my big solo. I like new toys as much as anyone, but it's funny that the two synths that have impressed me most in recent years have both been monophonic. Maybe it's something about my age, but suddenly I don't want to cut my hair anymore. Who knows, maybe you'll see me on stage soon with a cape on — or some other kind of poultry.